- Associated Press - Saturday, September 4, 2010

VENICE, ITALY (AP) - There’s never been a road trip quite like this in cinematic history.

Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko’s poetic new movie “Silent Souls” tells the story of a Russian factory manager’s tender farewell to his departed wife, using the rituals of the Merja people, ancient inhabitants of the Volga region who long ago were assimilated into Slavic culture.

The movie, which premiered Saturday at the Venice Film Festival in competition for the Golden Lion, provides a sort of cinematic field guide to Merja traditions, which the filmmakers say have been preserved among their descendants.

“These people don’t exist any more, but we didn’t want to offend their memory,” 43-year-old Fedorchenko told reporters.

After his beloved Tanja dies, Miron asks his best friend, called Aist, to help him in his final goodbye.

They embark on a journey cloaked in myth and ritual, accompanied by a pair of caged bunting birds that give the film its Russian title “Ovsyanki” and which have strong symbolic importance to the film.

Yuliya Aug, who plays the part of Tanya, is mostly seen as a corpse, and even in flashback scenes she doesn’t speak.

“It wasn’t difficult for me remaining silent all the time. You don’t need words. The glance of a woman in love is enough to tell the story,” Aug said.

Tanya’s body is prepared lovingly by the two men, who wordlessly and expertly observe the ancient rituals, washing the corpse then performing the same tender rites as on a bride before marriage. Then she is wrapped in a blanket and laid in the back seat of the car for the long trip.

“The slogan of the film was tenderness. We wanted tenderness to be transformed into nostalgia; tenderness and nostalgia were to become synonymous with love,” said Fedorchenko.

Water plays a central role in the film, and in Merja life. The rivers in the region of west-central Russia still bear their Merja names, including Volga. Merja people felt great respect for the water, the film explains, and there is no death better than by drowning _ although no Merjan would ever drown himself, because it would be impolite to pass others on the way to heaven.

Along the way, the Merja myths and traditions transform the movie into a sort of fairy tale.

The crew sought to focus on the ethnic peculiarities of the disappeared people, and translate that into images. They filmed modern cities that have sprung up in their ancient homeland, cities that now too have been laid to waste, filled with boarded up and abandoned buildings.

“This feeling, this representation of the Merjan, was something we felt the whole time were staying in that region. Also the names of the rivers bring us back to the Merja people, and the expression on the women’s faces us reminds us of that people, that there was something different,” Fedorchenko said.

“We wanted to recreate this world that didn’t exist any longer, but was constantly present with us.”

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