Aleksey Fedorchenko’s film follows 2 men on a journey of sorrow. The wife of one has died. The other, a friend and employee, goes along with him to conduct the burial rights of the Merja, an ethnic group that evidently resides somewhere north of Moscow. This means rather than burying the woman, she is burned on a pyre and her ashes scattered in water. The widower takes this opportunity to “smoke,” a Merja term for talking about the most intimate secrets of his love life before his wife is buried. The friend pines for dead parents and his culture swallowed up by Russia.
I’m something of a sucker for contemplative films about loss, sorrow, loneliness, death, and memory. When they are paced in a way to combine silence and moving the story along, even better. The film is deeply touching and both characters had my sympathy as they tried to reconcile their respective losses through mostly forgotten traditions in a culture moving fast ahead. Russian and eastern European films have long encouraged meaningful discussions of these issues, whether light or heavy in conversation, mystical or lyrical, short or long.
I did like this film. On the other hand, I’m not totally comfortable with yet another film that features women as nothing more than objects to talk about, have sex with, or allow men to explore their own feelings. The dead wife here has really nothing to do, even in the flashback scenes where she living. The prostitutes that show up have nothing more to do than comfort our sufferers. I’m hardly surprised that a Russian film would be constructed in this way, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it is worth noting. At the same time, the woman did have colored strings tied to her pubic hair before marriage, which is certainly a new one for me. He also bathes her in vodka to show his love, which makes as much sense as a use for the tasteless spirit as drinking it.
Still, this is a largely successful film. It’s also nice to see meaningful films on the subject of death and sorrow, two things that American film does very poorly, whether from the studios or independents. Plus it features buntings as a major character, even if I find caged birds incredibly depressing.