Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 17, 2011

Silent Souls

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

Regular readers of my movie reviews know that I tend to shy away from anything that can be described as “poetic” even though in a previous lifetime that would have been exactly my cup of tea. Too many wars and too many crushed revolutions have tended to inure me to nothing except dry analytical exercises on the workings of capitalism and only those films that make the case for its abolition either implicitly or explicitly. So when I got a press notice for a Russian film titled “Silent Souls” that describes the plot as a road movie centering on a burial ritual according to Merja culture, that of an ancient Finno-Ugric tribe from Lake Nero, I almost decided to pass on it. As a long-time advocate of socialist modernization, I doubted that the film would be of much interest to me even though I tend to see just about any film coming out of the former Soviet Union as a way of keeping tabs on the erstwhile Marxist experiment.

I am happy to report now that “Silent Souls” is a brilliant work of art and that its poetic representation of Merja culture is something that transcends national boundaries and ideology just as any great art should. It opened yesterday at the Angelika Theater in NY and will open at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on September 30 and should not be missed.

Its artistic achievement is all the more impressive since director Aleksei Fedorchenko and screenwriter Denis Osokin are working with defiantly mundane material. Virtually a two-man cast with very little dialog, the setting is Central Russia in the dead of winter amidst aging factories, ramshackle houses and bare trees. The two main characters are as one with the landscape. We are first introduced to Aist (Igor Sergeyev), a balding middle-age man who works as a photographer at a paper factory as he returns home with a pair of buntings, sparrow-like birds that he has purchased at the town bazaar. The next morning he reports to work and is summoned to meet with Miron (Yuri Tsurilo), the plant manager who is also his friend.

Miron takes Aist to the roof of the plant and pours vodka for the both of them. As he takes a sip, Timor, who is balder and older than Aist, informs him matter-of-factly that his wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) had died the night before and that he needs his help in cleaning the body and preparing it for a traditional Meryan funeral, which entails a home-made cremation on a bonfire near a site that has symbolic value for the deceased—in this instance a lake where they honeymooned.

Much of the film consists of the two men driving along desolate looking highways with the corpse in the back of the car with few words passed between them. As they make their way toward their destination, where the body will be rendered into ashes, Aist’s reflections on Meryan ways are heard over the soundtrack accompanied by Andrei Karasyov’s haunting film score that will remind you of some of the neo-romantic work of Eastern European composers such as Arvo Part.

We also see flashbacks of Miron and Tanya in their married life. Although she—like the two men—is nothing to look at, their passion is much more palpable than anything I have ever seen on the screen from some of Hollywood’s more beautiful but sterile specimens.

“Silent Souls” eschews cheap cinematic techniques and draws you in slowly but inexorably. When you learn about the complex ties between the two men and the woman toward the end of the film, it comes as no great surprise even though it has a shattering impact.

The film has a dreamlike quality even though nothing happens out of the ordinary, even if that ordinary is based on the experience of the Merjan people who can best be described as having the values of a long-lost tribe with strong ties to the earth and the water. Like the celebrants in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, the Merjans are in touch with patterns of existence from our earliest ancestors. Dressed as they are in modern clothing, it is not hard to imagine the characters in bearskins with their bodies painted blue dancing around a ritual sacrifice to the gods.

Director Aleksei Fedorchenko hardly has the background that would prepare him for such a flight of the imagination. He was trained as an engineer and worked on space wars type projects in Sverdlovsk before becoming an economist at the Sverdlovsk film studios. His first feature film was “First on the Moon”, a mockumentary about a 30s Soviet landing on the moon that can be seen on Youtube. I doubt that it will be anything except a compelling work of art.


  1. You say you focus on “. . . dry analytical exercises on the workings of capitalism and only those films that make the case for its abolition either implicitly or explicitly.”

    You can try for a stance as a bitter old man, much as I do, but sometimes you fail. I’d like to see this film; thanks for the review.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — September 19, 2011 @ 4:02 am

  2. I’m a grumpy middle aged woman (in my forties).

    Hats off to the grumpy because we know how to debate an issue better than the young ones.


    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — September 19, 2011 @ 9:57 pm

  3. Off topic-

    Am I the only person who has a problem with this new breed of news anchor on local news stations?

    The good anchors are being replaced with much younger women who personify the dumb blonde stereotype.

    On my local news there’s one anchor who giggles and tries to act cute seemingly lacking intellect when supposedly college educated.

    After reporting that an electrical worker had been mildly electrocuted and released from the hospital, I complained to the station that she was so dumb not knowing that electrocution means to die by electrical shock.

    You can imagine how big a mistake that was for his family to hear when he wasn’t dead.

    This anchor had the nerve to mention my complaint on her twitter page and she and her followers called me a bully.

    Criticism isn’t bullying and she’s a public figure so it’s fair game.

    I also got tired of the spin she puts on stories about Obama whom she claims to be friends with.

    I want news not anchor opinions, dumb English mistakes or socializing about their Friday night plans.

    Sorry had to vent. I’m not a bully really. I just hate dumb anchors when so many intelligent and talented people are out of work in America.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — September 19, 2011 @ 11:12 pm

  4. Off Topic- Day of Rage protests on Wall Street.

    I’m thinking about joining. It’s going on every day to end corporate tyrrany.

    Grab your picket signs comrades.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — September 20, 2011 @ 4:43 am

  5. It’s about time a group protested corporate tyranny and debt slavery in America.

    Anarchy smells so good.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — September 20, 2011 @ 4:53 am

  6. On my previous comment about a brainless female news anchor on my local station.

    The real undertone to this practice is purely sexist on the part of the male news director who hires morons like this.

    Obviously hired for her looks and not smarts which sets women back about a hundred years.

    She also does the news standing up in a low cut top showing cleavage and a skirt so short that it leaves nothing to the imagination.

    I complain because as a woman I find it offensive.

    As a marxist, I want to live in a world where women don’t have to act stupid or dress like hookers to get ahead.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — September 20, 2011 @ 11:08 pm

  7. […] Souls”, Aleksei Fedorchenko’s meditation on love and loss among the Merjan people that I reviewed last month. Like “Silent Souls”, two recent films are set in Russia’s hinterlands and to be sure, there […]

    Pingback by Siberia Monamour; The Edge « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 29, 2011 @ 9:48 pm

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