May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
August 24, 2011
Silent Souls is a film about death. But the precise pace of this film, which is full of the kind of lengthy driving sequences that lull one into contemplation, provided plenty of room to think about the implications of the dead body in the back seat.
There are a lot of ways to think about death in cinema terms. Films like Dead Man or Barbarian Invasions or Ikiru are about the jagged contours and the physical facts of dying. In contrast to the violent, cheap death of an extra in an action flick, one can feel the sudden shock of mortality fading in these elegies. When William Blake cuts loose in his funereal canoe at the end of Dead Man, the merciful silence that follows feels almost eschatological in scope. Then there are the films about funerals and memories, all the things we do to cope with absence. Ponette comes to mind, as does Harold and Maude, or The Sweet Hereafter. I still can’t help but think of Up as a fantastical death rite, Carl’s trek toward Paradise Falls a struggle to preserve the greatness that was Ellie by rooting her memory in a meaningful grave.
But then there are the films about death as it presents itself to us in the form of the bodies that are left behind. Resnais’ Night and Fog is a terrifying example of this. The camera first pans across the Auschwitz piles of shoes, hair, and bones. Then we see the bodies, stacked like battered lumber before bulldozers. In a way less matter of fact, Bergman’s Cries and Whispers presents us with a corpse emitting its last few ideas about the past, rehearsing the difficulty of disentangling a dead body from the networks of life. (I suppose Resnais’ film suggests the same thing, which is an awful thought.) Then there are the less provocative films, like Silent Light, in which we observe the quiet task of a body being prepared for burial.
Which brings us back to Silent Souls.
Miron’s young wife has died during the night, so he asks his employee Aist to come help him with the body. After washing and preparing the body according to a checklist of customs, they load her heavy frame into the backseat of Miron’s car and begin to drive toward a distant beach where they can burn her body on a pyre and release the ashes into the water. This is all documented with precision. The body is washed, prepared, and rolled up into a blanket. The structure of the pyre is pounded into the sand, the body covered, soaked, and lit and then scattered in the river.
If the narrator, Aist, is to be believed, this is all conducted according to Merjan custom, which is the old but fading cultural identity of his small Russian town. All throughout the film Aist talks about what it means to be Merjan and catalogs the various features of this rather promiscuous culture. But, as several alert film critics have noticed, the details Aist describes as Merjan seem to have simply been made up by the director. It turns out that Silent Souls is a slightly comical fable or fabrication that addresses the slippage of cultural memory in modern Russia. The end of the film makes this even clearer, as it appears in a Borges way that Aist may not even exist. We have just watched two non-existent men perform a burial rite for a body according to non-existent cultural customs.
But it is the body in the backseat of their car that provides a meaningful center for all these fabrications. The film is a meditation on the loss of identity. This thing we call culture is not as coherent and stable as we think. Yet there is and always will be something stable, still, and sobering, something that cinema has been able to comprehend very well. This is the human body as it confronts death and is then cared for by others in various ways. In a counterintuitive way, representations of this process can be restorative. They remind us that when stripped of cultural detail, much of what we do as people is a tacit consideration of and preparation for death. As if on cue, when the body finally disappears from Silent Souls, the film takes a turn toward bitterness – Aist and Miron are sadly denied the sense of restoration we experience in similar films. But it is instructive nonetheless.