Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Alexei Fedorchenko: Silent Souls - Овсянки (2010)

Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Writer: Denis Osokin
Cast: Igor Sergeyev, Yuriy Tsurilo, Yuliya Aug, Victor Sukhorukov

Official site here.

Silent Souls, the slender, elegiac new feature from Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko was the one movie at last month's Venice Film Festival which left both myself and Indie Movies editor Emma with the unhappy sensation often characterised as 'that sinking feeling'. Not because it looked particularly heinous or especially ominous. No, nothing of the sort. But simply because we each squandered several opportunities to go see it, and were then forced to listen with teeth-gnashing frustration as those hacks who had caught the thing subsequently rhapsodised as to its merits.

Our shared (and entirely selfish) fear was that this apparent artistic triumph would romp home to the Golden Lion and leave us looking even more daft and empty-headed than usual, as when it came time to give our reaction to the final competition standings we simply shrugged our shoulders and looked as dumbly blank as guppy fish attempting to sit a Maths GCSE. Thank goodness then for Quentin Tarantino, who led his jury down the path of handing Venice's top prize to one of the more inane films showcased there, Sofia Coppola's Somewhere; Fedorchenko's endeavours merely being rewarded with a compensatory bauble for Best Cinematography, thus sparing the Indie Movies team's blushes.

However having skated so dangerously upon such perilously thin ice then, there wasn't a moggy in hell's chance of me passing up the opportunity presented by the organisers of this year's London Film Festival to give this alleged meisterwerk the attentions of my critical eye (I've only got the one – the left. My philistine of a right eye enjoys the cinema of Brett Ratner and Shawn Levy, and finds it impossible to get on with movies where the actors talk 'foreign').

As it turns out, maybe QT and company weren't as blinkered in their final choices as alleged in certain quarters (Sandro Bondi, I am looking at you. Yes, you), with Silent Souls proving to be an interesting diversion, but nothing more. The movie is based on a short story by Denis Osokin, who adapted his own work for the screen, and it very much has the feel of a literary sketch, of ideas evoked, rather than being quite fully explored.

Fedorchenko's film is set in northern Russia, in a region once populated by a Finnic people known as the Merjan, whose culture has been lost over the centuries. Our narrator, Aist (Igor Sergeyev), is a man attempting to riddle out the Merjan, to understand who exactly he and his kinsfolk are, through the creation of a written and pictorial chronicle. One day, while taking photographs of his co-workers at the paper mill in his home town of Neja, he is called in to see the mill's director, Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo), who explains that his wife, Tanya, has recently died, and that he requires Aist's assistance to transport her body to the spot where the couple honeymooned, to give her corporeal vessel an ultimate release in keeping with Merjan traditions.

Cue some wacky Weekend at Bernie's-esque chicanery, as the two middle-aged sourpusses take Tanya's al fresco corpse on a road trip... okay, I'm not fooling any of you, am I? This is largely a downbeat affair. There are moments of idiosyncratic humour - a flashback showing Miron lovingly washing the still-living Tanya (played by Yuliya Aug) in vodka, a choir led in a bizarre song about a trip to the pharmacy and a lengthy shopping list - but for the most part the proceedings are quiet and contemplative, with much of the parsimonious running time being occupied by unbroken shots of the backs of Aist and Miron's balding heads as they drive across the carbon-coloured terrain. Situated between the two is the cage of twittering 'buntings' bought by our narrator; small sparrow-type birds that give Osokin's source story its name, and make Aist the second avian-fixated screen Russian this year, after Mickey Rourke's 'buhd'-lover in Iron Man 2. Actually, the pick of cinematographer Mikhail Krichman's Venice-wowing camera work comes in a shot showing what look like two blue lines on a white blankness, before these are revealed to be the shadows cast by the young Aist and his eccentric poet father as they traverse an epic expanse of ice. ...

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