Thursday, February 2, 2012

Silent Souls (2010) A Film by Aleksei Fedorchenko

In its opening sequence of lovely, elegiac imagery and reflective voice-over, Aleksei Fedorchenko's Silent Souls succinctly evokes its central motifs: the decay of tradition, the tenacity of memory, and the way that the flow of time washes away human rituals and pastimes. For the next 70 or so minutes, the film continues to use the same means in an attempt to reach the same end. Instead of strengthening and deepening the themes however, this method only renders Fedorchenko's purpose remote and tiring as his tools become increasingly apparent and his imagination wears increasingly thin. The loose, amorphous story concerns two men played by Yuriy Tsurilo and Igor Sergeev (names here are negligible, but for the sake of organization, they are called Miron and Aist, respectively) who traverse the breathtaking vistas of West-Central Russia to usher the former's recently deceased wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) into the void on the shore of the allegedly sacred Lake Nero in an ancient ritual of Merja culture. The ins-and-outs of this spiritual process are laboriously laid out by Aist in characteristically heavy Euro-narration, and indeed it seems as if this descriptive and mournful text was the film's entire raison d'ĂȘtre. An intensely introspective road movie is built in here rather cryptically, but one gets the sense that it's ultimately incidental, that Fedorchenko could have offered up any anecdotal narrative in this cold, gray Russian milieu to flesh out his character's musings.

Aist's narration informs the audience that the Merjan people were an ancient tribe from Lake Nero, that they considered water to be the essential link between life and death, that they assimilated into Russian culture in the 17th century, that they treated Lake Nero as the axis of their spiritual endeavors, and that few of their descendants remain, among other particularities. Fedorchenko's images, on the other hand, inform the audience that this flat, deserted region of Russia is at once imposing and impossibly gorgeous, and that these men spend the vast majority of their days driving around this featureless landscape without speaking. Of course, I'm being somewhat facetious, but maybe not so much. The lasting impression of Silent Souls is its droning attention to the backs of Miron and Aist's heads as the environment passes by them. A fitting metaphor for the irreversible passage of time, yes, but also one that is pillaged so insistently and opportunistically as a structural element that it threatens to sabotage any understatement that might have existed in the shot itself. Half of the film feels vacated by these images, and instead of building to the walloping cumulative effect of transience that Fedorchenko clearly intends, the repetition adds a level of visual monotony to what is otherwise a carefully composed and formidably lit film.

Given all the lascivious shots of the vaginal region, pubic hair, and women either in sexual ecstasy or total numbness, it becomes tempting to label the film curiously sexist and perhaps vaguely misogynist. But then one realizes that Fedorchenko is not merely treating women as objects, but men too. And then, one realizes that any actual object in the mise-en-scene is also treated as a terminally unsymbolic, definitively plain object. Whereas filmmakers like Lisandro Alonso and Tsai Ming-Liang manage to find the weight and modest beauty in the simple fact of the physical world, Fedorchenko's Earth, as well as its human and inhuman inhabitants, feels dull and lifeless. I suspect this is largely because of the disconnect between the director's ideas and his execution. This is a film about the wonder and philosophical faith assigned to concrete things (people, traditions, clothing, objects (there's that word again!)) - that is, the unique ability for people to find meaning beyond surfaces - in which very little is anything more than a compositional element, and in which a dry, self-conscious, by-the-numbers "slow cinema" aesthetic suppresses any charm from the environments that are filmed. For a film so concerned with preserving tradition, nothing seems convincingly sacred.

A glaring case in point: Fedorchenko wears his Tarkovsky influence on his sleeve in many ways, the most salient being his interest in water and its metaphysical properties, yet the film's imagery rarely makes compelling use of liquid. This has to be the most parched film about water ever made. There are a few overhead shots of flowing water from rivers and lakes, but after its usage in the opening montage, it starts to feel pro forma, like a pre-coded symbol rather than a living, breathing image. In fact, in a single scene, fire makes a more visceral impact as it blazes by the shore of Lake Nero, taking the spirit of Tanya with it. Even then, the massive flame seems as much a ransacking of one of Tarkovsky's quintessential compositional elements as it is a tribute to the ancient Merjan custom of burning deceased loved ones and tossing their ashes in the lake. To complete the wholehearted love for the Russian master, Fedorchenko rips the haunting segment from The Mirror of Margarita Terekhova drenching her hair in water with a flashback scene of Miron sensually bathing his wife in Vodka.

Silent Souls isn't all fraudulence though; it operates under a distinctly Russian spell of melancholy and nostalgia, and this mood feels organically sewn into the patchwork of the film. Indeed, the best scene is a montage that visualizes Aist's recollections of his childhood and his father in which the two of them row canoes and walk on ice against painterly backdrops, likely because it actually engages with the reverence of the past that runs through Aist's narration. Otherwise, Fedorchenko's just wallowing in the present tense that he clearly finds corrupt and soulless, hence a brief scene of meaningless sex that the two men have with anonymous urban hookers, followed by an overwrought shot of their blurred figures in a hotel window in front of evil city lights. If Fedorochenko had brought the same complexity of thought to the distinction between past and present that he brings to the topic of life and death, Silent Souls may have developed a justification for its strange assault of visual punctuation marks loosely dancing around the narrative being relayed by Aist on the soundtrack. It's not that there's a significant chasm between sound and image; it's that Aist's words are so open-ended that only vague visuals can accompany them. What's left is a series of shots indicating transience and fading tradition (a typewriter being plunged into an icy lake, a moving shot from the back of a bicycle down a long forest road, old rundown buildings, etc.) without really evoking those feelings.

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