Alexei Fedorchenko's pungent and disturbing film combines folklore, ethnography and eroticism.
Based on Denis Osokin's novel, Ovsyanki (The Buntings), Silent Souls is set in the Lake Nero region in western Russia, where the Merya, a pre-Russian Finno-Ugric tribe, are still in evidence.
The film's voice-over narrator, Aist, is a factory photographer and collector of the Meryan folklore. His boss, Miron, asks him to help send off his recently deceased wife, Tanya, in true Merya fashion.
Her corpse must be cremated by a lakeside and the ashes scattered in water. But before that, Miron must "smoke" - that is, chat quietly and honestly about the deceased's sexual allure. Two caged buntings - small, sparrow-like birds - accompany them on their journey through sepia-lit lowlands to the moody, folksy soundtrack.
As Miron tells his attentive companion more and more about the old days, it transpires that Aist and Tanya had some sort of relationship (perhaps not entirely platonic) long before Miron's arrival, and probably long after that - which, admittedly, makes it sound like a drab triangular love story, but don't expect any of that Nikita Mikhalkov-true-Orthodox-mode-melodrama nonsense.
Silent Souls runs deeper, and quieter. It is a celebration of physicality, of life as it is lived through the body, not through the brain; a love story told by two men in their own terms, according to their own lights, which is not part of some ideological battle, some larger war fought by people who think that film-making and politics are intertwined like the colored threads in the Merya bride's pubic hair.
The thing is that every major Russian film immediately signifies something.
It shows where you stand, or where you sit, or where you flop - Andrei Konchalovsky's eagerly awaited Nut Cracker in 3D has turned out a box office turkey. It doesn't always matter if the film is good, or bad, or speckled. None of this matters. It is what it says about, for example, Joseph Stalin, or the Nazi invasion of Russia, or the Chechen wars, or Vladimir Putin; and if it says that the Chechen wars were a dastardly appalling crime against humanity, you're no good, and a liar, and a hypocrite. If, on the other hand, it says that Putin is Russia's only hope in the world, you're a good patriot and a true instrument of the state.
By that token, Silent Souls is nowhere near this ugly, hollow strain of triumphalism in Russia's contemporary mainstream cinema, as exemplified in Mikhalkov's 2009 blockbuster Burnt by the Sun 2 or Vladimir Khotinenko's 2007 costume epic 1612: A Chronicle of the Time of Troubles.
It has been faring relatively well at the domestic box office, and won several awards at the Venice Film Festival in September, but it could just become another quiet arthouse performer, just like Fedorchenko's 2005 First on the Moon, a black-and-white mockumentary about a 1930s Soviet lunar landing.
But whatever it turns out to be, for its beauty and style, it must be seen.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
MOSCOW, January 11 (RIA Novosti, Alexei Korolyov)