Silent Souls (Ovsyanki) – Movie Review

An eternal love story on the frozen plains of Russia told as two friends journey on a wake in the ancient Merjan tradition.

Films dealing with Finnish culture are unique. Films dealing with the ancient Finno-Ugric culture are virtually unknown. Films that tell the love story of the Merja people are nonexistent. Until this one.

Director Aleksei Fedorchenko and writer Denis Osokin team up to tell a vibrant and touching story of lost love. The story is told within the myths and legends of the ancient Merjan people of Northwest Russia.

The Merjans are one of the main groups that went on to populate what is now Finland. Their nation goes back millennia before the modern borders we know today. Their religion was pagan. In their own words, they loved no God but loved each other instead.

Their life was (and is) a tapestry of carefully woven emotions and natural associations based on love and water. Love and water are two sides of the same coin. “A woman is a flowing river that is very good for taking away the grief from a man. It is too bad a man cannot drown in a woman.”

Eventually becoming some of the foremost ocean adventurers in the world, the Merjans had a deep love of, and respect for, water. They consecrate the bones of their dead in the water. They would love to drown in water but it is not right to take advantage before the time has come. It is not right to race ahead of others on their journeys to heaven. One must wait until the water decides the time is right.

The overt storyline is of two men on a road trip. Paper mill complex boss Miron asks the official photographer of the complex, Aist, to accompany him. Miron’s wife, Tanya, has died and he is going on the ancient burial pilgrimage to inter her bones. This is will be done as practiced for millennia; he will wash her body and take her to the place that was most special to both of them. There he will leave her to the waters.

Superficially, the journey is a traditional Merjan wake. The blank, frozen landscape north of Moscow provides the perfect setting for the prospect of a life alone. As the two men drive through the pale, snow swept tundra, Miron recounts his life with Tanya. He loved her with all his heart. His passion for her is legendary throughout the region.

As the two pass a military checkpoint, a burly officer with a machine gun asks them what they have in the back seat. “A loved one,” answers Miron. The officer looks and lets them pass. This definitely is not Kansas, Toto.

Miron loved his wife like Frankie loved Johnnie. Sadly, like Johnny, the word around the community was that Tanya did not return Miron’s love with the same passion. Her eyes looked far away, although she acceded to his every demand, devoting herself body and soul to her husband’s satisfaction. Miron was haunted by the feeling that if he truly loved Tanya he would let her go. He would release her to be with her true lover. He could not bear to do it.

As intimate sexual details are recounted, so is the heartbreak shared by Miron, Aist and Tanya. Their lives were very good, but they were not perfect. Perhaps nobody’s life can be perfect. Perfection is left to the Volga River and the sea.

This film is so unique that it is difficult to make a comparison. In terms of depth of sincerity and engrossing storytelling, the Australian Aborigine film “Ten Canoes” is the only one that comes close. Opposite in culture and location, the two films share mythical stories painted on disappearing frameworks of pagan belief.

The plot leaves more than a few questions unanswered, in the same way that life leaves questions unanswered. The two men approach the deceased woman from different points of view. For one, the love outweighs the guilt. It is the opposite for the other. In the background, the rivers and plains of Russia remain the same.

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Directed by: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Written by: Denis Osokin
Starring: Yuliya Aug, Larisa Damaskina and Olga Dobrina 
Release Date: September 16, 2011
MPAA: Not Rated
Country: Russia
Language: Russian
Color: Color