“If something is doomed to disappear, then so be it,” decides Igor Sergeev, the narrator of Aleksei Fedorchenko’s tender, mournful third feature, Silent Souls. But that’s easier said (or thought—no one spends much time speaking in this film) than done, most of all when you’re burying a loved one. And Yuliya Aug, who appears alive in Silent Souls only in flashbacks, was very much loved—by Sergeev, and by her husband Yuriy Tsurilo, Sergeev’s friend and coworker. They’re Volga Finns, members of a Russian ethnic minority, though their people, the Merjan, assimilated centuries ago, leaving behind only a few remaining rites and traditions. Sergeev laments the passing of this cultural identity as he does Aug’s death, and the two lost things combine in his memory. As he and Tsurilo travel to a spot along the Volga River to cremate the dead woman, Sergeev thinks back on his father, who was also crushed with grief after his wife’s passing.
Offering explanations and thoughts via voiceover as the pair embarks on their road trip, Sergeev notes that “Our people are a bit strange, their faces are inexpressive. There are no passions boiling.” But the strength of the emotion felt by these two men under their stoic exteriors is overwhelming, tying in to recurring liquid imagery and bringing to mind the old adage about still waters. The solemnity of the task at hand is brought to earth by the fact that it’s an old ceremony taking place in the new world—the wood they gather for the funeral pyre consists of ax handles purchased at a hardware store, and after they’ve burned the body, they eat at a mall, sitting next to a skating rink. Deadpan shots like those contrast with compositions of intense poetry (courtesy of cinematographer Mikhail Krichman)—the cremation, taking place on the Volga’s gray banks at dusk, is worthy of a painting, as is a memory of Tsurilo bathing Aug in vodka in the half-light of a hotel room. While the pace and the dour, meditative tone of Silent Souls can sometimes verge on parodically arthouse-esque, the sincerity of the film’s thoughts on loss and longing, on the burdens of grief, and on reawakened awareness of existence, is always painfully heartfelt.