Sunday, December 19, 2010

109. Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko’s “Ovsyanki” (Silent Souls) (2010): A requiem on love, death, birds, water, and our past

Good Russian cinema has always gripped me like no other; Kozintsev, Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky and Zvyaginstsev are imprinted in my mind’s eye and ears. And then along comes another, a certain Aleksei Fedorchenko. His Silent Souls happens to be his third feature length film, which recently picked up the Venice award for best photography. (Venice could claim to have introduced him to the wider cinematic world when his debut film First on the Moon won a significant award at that festival). Russian cinema often suggests that melancholia can be appealing if dealt with intelligence that Silent Souls proves as did works of the afore-mentioned Russian/Soviet filmmakers. And the camerawork of Venice award-winning cinematographer Mikhail Krichman remind you of the lensing of Jonas Gritsius, Kozintsev’s cameraman. It is not surprising to find Krichman was the cinematographer of Zvyagintsev’s two feature films. Small world, this world of good Russian cinema! Krichman also bagged the prestigious Plus Camerimage award for 2010 for the work in Silent Souls. Silent Souls also won the Black Pearl award for the Best Narrative film at the Abu Dhabi film festival.

Silent Souls is an amazing and complex work of cinema. Fedorchenko has made a film based on the novella/short-story called The Buntings, by Aist Sergeyev, with a screenplay by Denis Osokin adapting Sergeyev’s work. The main character in the film/story is also named Aist, obviously the alter ego of the novelist, who narrates the tale. The narration begins by self-introduction--the narrator is a Merjan, a 400 year old Finno-Ugric tribe in North-West Russia. His dead father was a poet--'He was a queer fish, that self-taught Merjan poet.' The narrator says the Merjans don’t talk much—much of the real “talking” in the film is done by the camera and the imaginative direction, not the actors.

Two essential elements of cinema lurk in the screenplay: the camera and the written word. Aist, the narrator, is a photographer. Early in the film interesting Russian faces smile into Aist’s lens as he directs them to smile or tilt their faces. Is he a ladies’ man? Aist has no family but has gifted a trinket to his best friend’s wife. Much later into the film Aist recollects his father, the self-taught Merjan poet, throwing his most prized possession a typewriter into a semi-frozen river. The only song in the film is sung by an admirable choir and we are told it is a song written by a local Merjan poet. The story/screenplay/direction nudges the viewer to the unwritten tale of the Merjan nation underneath the obvious tale. Most interesting trivia for me was the dedication of the film: not to the father of the director or screenplay-writer but to the father of the original story writer (who probably in real life threw his typewriter into the water!).

The only relationships discussed in the film relate to son and father (so much akin to Zvyagintsev’s The Return), women are objects of pleasure (as wife, illicit lover, and prostitute) and memory (to be captured on still film, as well). Aist the writer has called his story “The Buntings”, birds of the sparrow family. We are shown two buntings in a cage which accompany the two main characters on their journey. One would have assumed the suggested parallels are between Aist, the narrator, and the widower Miron. When you sell a pair of buntings, it is often a pair of birds of the opposite sexes. The parallel suggested by Aist the story-writer relates to Miron and his dead wife, Tanya.

Male-dominated as it may seem, the film is paean of a man for his dead wife, an object of love even in death. He is so broken in spirit that he rushes out of his car in remorse to kick a birch tree. Director Fedorchenko stated in his press conference at the Venice film festival: “The slogan of the film was tenderness. We wanted tenderness to be transformed into nostalgia; tenderness and nostalgia were to become synonymous with love. This feeling, this representation of the Merjan, was something we felt the whole time we were staying in that region. Also the names of the rivers bring us back to the Merjan people, and the expression on the women’s faces us reminds us of that people, that there was something different. We wanted to recreate this world that didn’t exist any longer, but was constantly present with us.”

But to assess this film further one has to shift gears. The film transcends love. It grapples with death and “water” (read nature) as major belief of the Merjan community. Merjans believe that all souls live in the flowing waters. Flowing water is as holy for the Merjan as the river Ganges to the Hindus. And believe it or not, the two communities separated by a continent believe in cremating their dead and collecting the burnt remains and consigning those remains to the flowing waters. Even the wedding ring worn by the husband is thrown into the water. Amazing that two communities so distant believe in the same rituals. Aist, the narrator, states “Our cemeteries are almost empty, only the young are buried there.” The incredible end of the film has the husband and wife meeting in the waters of the river, while another son, father, mother and the poet’s typewriter all meet in the sacred river. The narrator mentions he now writes on the “fish’s bodies.” Of course the narrator is speaking from a watery grave. Meanwhile, the end credits show Merjan couples locking locks on bridges and throwing the keys into the river. The everlasting Merjan story seems to continue to be associated with rivers over generations.

Death is another key element in this movie. Miron’s wife Tanya is dead early in the film. The Merjan rituals of preparing the dead for their last journey take up a chunk of the film. The journey to the river to consign the dead to flames and the waters of the river provides opportunity for “smoking.” “Smoking,” for the Merjans, is when intimate details of the dead are revealed to close friends to facilitate emotional release for the bereaved, a rough parallel with the Irish “wake.”

A conversation on immortality leads to the buntings falling silent in the car. Just as Hitchcock’s birds in his famous film The Birds become ominously silent before tragedy unfolds so do Fedorchenko’s buntings fall silent. But the image of a large bunting-like bird capable of smashing a windshield transforms the sequence into a dreamlike imagery from the realistic body that make up the rest of the movie. But surprisingly, the brief change in style fits into the scheme of the narration, as more facts are revealed by the narrator.

Silent Souls provides much to ponder about right from the first shot of the narrator with his cycle on a pontoon bridge to the final shot when the viewer realizes the true identity of Aist the narrator. Is it only love that gives meaning to life, as Aist, the narrator states, as he wishes he could live forever? But if you reflect, those are meaningless words as Aist has no family or friends, only the two buntings are his “family” apart from Miron his best friend who Aist has cheated in love. But then for the Merjans everlasting love has its abode in the flowing waters. The past and present merge as the narrator is not a hero but someone that resembles a chorus in a Greek tragedy. So do love and the flowing waters merge for the Merjans in the epilogue as the end-credits roll.

Fedorchenko may not be the finest Russian filmmaker alive, but he is definitely immensely talented and worthy of following closely.

P.S. Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Return and The Banishment with Mikhail Krichman as cinematographer have been reviewed earlier on this blog. 


Colin Rose said...

My version of this fine film is that the rituals are all made up as obviously was the witty mock folklore song, the Merjan are real but their grip on their identity has gone so taciturn men find a way of expressing grief by invented myth, something we all do in our own way. A very moving shaggy dog story.

Jugu Abraham said...

An Interesting perspective, Colin.