Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why Caged Birds Sing

Apparently, I'm not the only one looking up Meryan people after watching Silent Souls.  The film by Alexei Fedorchenko explores the role of Meryan traditional customs in a post-Soviet world, but it seemed to me the odd ceremonies surrounding weddings and funerals had less to do with the ceremonies themselves, but rather how we struggle to cope in a rapidly changing society.  The Merya themselves seem to be related to the Mari, or Volga Finns, but this film doesn't go into such contentious matters, keeping the story more on the level of allegory.

The central character, Aist, sets out to write a journal to break the boredom of working in a paper mill in a remote northern region of Russia.  It is a region apparently heavily populated by Meryans, so that when his boss, Miron, wants to give his dead wife a proper Meryan funeral, taking her to the river where they spent their honeymoon, the police officer doesn't think much of the dead body in the back seat of his SUV.  Along the way, Miron begins "smoking" about his past, relating memories he wouldn't otherwise tell.  Aist seems to accept all this as a matter of course, often falling into narration, as the dialog itself is rather threadbare.  These are after all rather silent souls, although the souls that Fedorchenko refers to are those who came before, drifting in the great river of time, like Aist's father, a Meryan poet whom he tells about in retrospect.

Adding to the cryptic nature of this film are a pair of buntings which Aist insists on bringing, as he lives alone and there would be no one to take care of them.  Miron just shrugs his shoulders, and in the course of the journey takes interest in the birds, noting that his wife Tanya loved birds but couldn't stand to see them in cages. The Buntings, or Ovsyanki, as the film is called in Russian, are constantly chirping throughout the long drive.

Miron slowly comes to the realization that he kept his much younger wife in a cage, having her succumb to his pleasures rather than allowing her to realize hers.  I suppose that is why when he eventually tells Aist he knew about the affair she had with him, he doesn't hold it against him because he enjoyed seeing her happy in the surveillance camera clips he had on his cellphone.  But, their marriage wasn't without happiness, as Miron draws on more of his smokey memories.  It just wasn't realized the way it should, as he tries to come up with an explanation for her untimely death.

The film takes on a droll tone as the two buy birch shovel and axe handles at a hardware store that they eventually use for a funeral pyre on which they lay Tanya.  Miron scatters her ashes on the river.  Aist drifts back to an amusing memory he had following his father as he laid his beloved typewriter to rest on an icy lake,  after deciding that his poetry was over.  These intersecting memories are united by the river itself which Aist likens as the ultimate judge, deciding who to take.  It is not for us to decide our fate, but it seems the buntings work as agents for the river.

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