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"Silent Souls," a mystical masterpiece about a lonely man who helps a widower perform last rites for his wife, is an astonishing, haunting, sensual, lyrical, bleak and ultimately beautiful road-trip movie.
It's like watching a poem unfold before you, but the experience proves way more than just the atmospherics (which this movie has in spades). This is taut storytelling that works on both an emotional and a spiritual level.
As the story opens, we meet Aist, who lives by himself (with his recently acquired birds) in Neya, a forgotten city in west-central Russia. It's a place where many still practice the centuries-old practices of the Merjans, an ancient Finnish tribe that long ago assimilated into Russians.
Things get complicated when Aist's good friend Miron announces that his much younger wife, Tan-ya, has died, and that he wants Aist to travel with him for thousands of miles so he can take Tan-ya to a sacred lake and part with her in the true Merjan way. With Aist's birds in tow, the journey begins - two men clinging to their descendants' traditions at a time when modernism is threatening to wash them all away.
One of those traditions is "smoking," in which one reveals intimate sexual details of the deceased. It sounds tacky, but Miron's frank reminiscences of his wife prove to be a respectful, moving tribute. We feel his love for her.
Employing mainly single wide shots, all beautifully composed, director Aleksei Fedorchenko serves up plenty of other unforgettable moments. When Miron and Aist prepare a naked Tanya for the road trip, combing her hair, washing her, adorning her, it's mesmerizing, as is the scene in which they bid farewell to her at the lake.
There are many strands to this profound film, but the very satisfying ending somehow ties them all together. In a brisk 75 minutes, "Silent Souls" accomplishes what many decent movies can't do in three hours.— David Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle
Wed February 8, 2012, 7:00 & 9:00, Muenzinger Auditorium
Russia, 75 min,35mm, 2010, in Russian, 2.35:1, Color, Not Rated • official site