Russia (2010). Dir: Aleksei Fedorchenko, Scr: Denis Osokin
I sat down to watch this film just after its first run in an old church in Tunbridge Wells, a polite town known to locals as Royal Tunbridge Wells. I can’t recall when we realized there were no English subtitles but, although it seemed impolite to leave, soon we had to file out. But even in those early moments, we had been struck by something special – perhaps it was the solitary man walking his bicycle across the wooden pontoon bridge as it moved with the current. Returning a year later to the DVD, I marveled at 75 lyrical minutes of perfect cinema: a contemplation on universal themes – in this case, death, grief, companionship, love, sex – in an utterly unique setting, one rich in atmosphere and completely outside the viewer’s normal frame of reference. Watching it is like falling in love in another world.
Miron is the middle-aged senior manager at a factory in central Russia. He calls his friend, Aist – who also narrates, from the shop-floor onto the roof to tell him that his young wife, Tanya, died the previous night, “I’m not taking her to the morgue. I’d prefer to do everything with you”. They are descended from the Merja, a race of Finnish émigrés assimilated into Russia centuries ago and he was asking Aist to help him honour the almost forgotten rites of passage, including accompanying him on the long journey back to where he married to build a funeral pyre by the river.
While the film has its roots in the orphaned villages linked to a distant past, it not a documentary about Finno-Ugric culture. It doesn’t seem to matter what parts are Merjan tradition and what parts are (beautiful) poetic licence: the tender rituals are special to reflect an aching and all-encompassing love for his wife and Miron performs them, carefully and methodically, to cope with grief. And Aist is, of course, important on the journey to help with rituals both physically and also emotionally. He listens to the “smoke”, when a grieving Merjan speaks of intimacies and says things “you’d never tell a stranger, to make your face brighter and turn grief into tenderness”. It’s also important that Aist hears that their friendship transcends guilt or forgiveness.
The camerawork of Michael Krichman is mesmeric. There’s a rain-soaked melancholy and quiet magnificence to the lansdscape and every frame is an elegant composition, a perfect fit with the poetry of the narrative. On this particular road trip from their beloved Neya it is also fitting that metaphor and symbol are never far. After the pair meet a couple of girls after the cremation, Aist muses “A live woman’s body is also a river that carries grief away”. Most significant is the pair of bunting birds in their cage that Aist couldn’t leave at home. Without subtitles this would be a gorgeous film. With them it is an inspiration.