If you want bombastic action, call the Americans. If you want a stirring drama on the destructive power of love, call the French. If you want a meditation on death that crawls towards its climax, call the Russians. Silent Souls has a subtle power to pull the viewer into the narrator's thoughts but even at seventy-five minutes it's a bit of a slog.
When his wife Tanya (Aug) dies, Miron (Tsurilo) doesn't want to place her in a morgue and calls on best friend Aist (Sergeyev) to help him bury her according to the rituals of the Merjan tradition. An area that was absorbed into the Russian empire in the 17th century, there are some who loosely keep some the cultural traditions alive and Miron and Aist travel the three-day journey to place Tanya's ashes in the Neya river. Keeping them company are a pair of buntings Aist purchased recently.
Aist's almost ever-present narration informs the audience every step of the way. When Miron openly discusses how he controlled his wife and of their sex life, Aist explains that this 'smoking' is expected in Merjan culture and that it's not insulting to the deceased but a way of honouring them. The narration immerses one in the culture: how water was sacred and that to die from drowning would be a good favourable way to go (suicide by drowning is seen as jumping the queue almost). As the travellers close in on their destination, Aist's mind takes him back to his childhood and to his oddball father who was a figure of fun to his hometown but now Aist, until now embarrassed at his father's antics, is persuaded to look at his upbringing with fresh eyes. It's a very subjective film and one can easily get lost in its meandering thoughts and images.
Although interesting to have an insight into this forgotten culture and despite the candid conversation between the characters, this road movie does at times feel like a National Geographic documentary. Its narration can veer towards a lecture at times, with long uninterrupted passages as if Aist was reading from a book. Silent Souls has been described as an epic in some quarters even though its running time is on the short side; that might be because, with its series of long shots of bleak Russian countryside, its seventy-five minutes are felt. The ending too is a misstep.