Postcard from Venice: Getting Folky With the Russians and Nostalgic with Martin Scorsese

As much as I love going to film festivals, there's one reason I sometimes feel out of place: Whenever I find myself in a circle of colleagues waxing euphoric about, say, an exquisite Russian or Eastern European movie they've just seen that deals very poetically with the idea of mourning the lost customs of the old country, I always want to pipe up, "Yes, but didn't it remind you just a bit of the Schmenges?"

Here in Europe, my friends might not have any idea what I'm talking about, but I'm referring to the SCTV sketches in which Eugene Levy and John Candy play the Schmenges, awkward polka-playing immigrant brothers from the fictional Eastern European land of Leutonia, who describe the customs of the old country with hearty laughter and dewy-eyed nostalgia. On Christmas day, the men all remove their socks and trade them with their neighbors; later, everyone gathers for a feast of "falutniks." If satire has to have meaning, then one of the underlying ideas behind the Schmenges skits might be, "Thank God we don't have to be peasants anymore!"

OK, maybe the chief idea behind the Schmenges is making fun of backward foreigners, which, face it, is an irresistible impulse among people of all nations. (And, by the way, you don't get a name like Zacharek by coming over on the Mayflower.) In any event, the one in-competition movie at the festival that all my colleagues have been raving about, Aleksei Fedorchenko's Silent Souls (its Russian title is Ovysyanki, the Russian word for a sparrow-like bird that's commonly seen in Russia and that figures prominently in the movie), had me worried for a while there. Silent Souls opens with a bit of voice-over explanation: The narrator explains that he's a descendant of the Merya people, an ancient tribe with Finnish roots who settled centuries ago in a small region of West Central Russia. The Meryas blended with the Russians sometime back in the 17th century, but their descendants have carried some of their traditions and myths into modern life.

Early in the movie Aist, the movie's narrator (he's played by Igor Sergeyev) is called upon by his best friend, Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo), also a Merya descendant, to help him bury his recently deceased wife, Tanya (Yuliya Aug). Miron doesn't want to go to the morgue, he explains; he wants to prepare the body for its entry into the afterlife according to the old customs, and he wants Aist to help him.

So Miron and Aist attend to the corpse -- Tanya, seen in flashback as a living person, is a vibrant, round-faced, vital-looking woman, and you can still see shades of that in her lifeless body, which Fedorchenko shows carefully and tactfully -- preparing it not for burial but for a rite of mourning that involves water and a kind of rebirth.

Aist explains in voice-over that when a Merya woman dies, her body is prepared as it would be for her wedding day. One of the pre-wedding -- and, in this case, post-mortem -- rituals includes tying bits of colored thread to her pubic hair. (On the wedding night, the groom removes the threads and ties them to the branches of a tree.)

Uh-oh: Shades of the Schmenges here. As Miron and Aist drive Tanya's body to its eventual resting place, Miron shares intimate details (many of them sexual) of his life with Tanya, things that he'd never say when she was alive. This, Aist explains, is the Merya custom known as "smoking," a way of talking out your grief for a loved one (although, admittedly, Aist explains the concept far more poetically than I just have).

Here, at a point in the movie's narrative that was clearly filled with great tenderness and meaning, I began wondering: Might Eugene Levy and John Candy also be descendants of the Merya people? If not, they certainly understood the vibe. But in the end, the filmmaking behind Silent Souls saved me. This isn't a picture made with a lavish budget, and Fedorchenko does a lot with a little, turning haggard, forlorn-looking landscapes into objects of rough beauty: Even long stretches of bland rural highway seem to carry traces of memory of what lay there before -- forests and woodlands, most likely. Fedorchenko favors controlled, unflashy camera work, and because the picture is exceptionally quiet, the little music he does use -- it sounds like a kind of plugged-in version of traditional folk music -- is particularly effective. In the end, Fedorchenko gets at some incredibly delicate ideas about grief and memory, and hints at the way landscapes that were gone before we were born somehow continue to live inside us. And face it: If we didn't hang onto ancestral memories, we wouldn't have the Schmenges.

A Letter to Elia, a compact and engaging little documentary made by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones and being shown out of competition here at the festival, is Scorsese's highly personal tribute to one of his favorite filmmakers, Elia Kazan -- although "tribute" is really too stiff a word to describe what Scorsese gets at here, as he tussles with the reasons certain filmmakers and their movies hold meaning for us. The picture is a mix of reflections from Kazan himself and film clips narrated by Scorsese. He describes how he felt when he saw On the Waterfront and recognized on-screen, for the first time, the types of faces that he'd seen every day growing up in Little Italy. He admits to "stalking" East of Eden from theater to theater in New York. And he tells a rather wonderful and insightful story about how, as a young New York University student, he met with Kazan to try to persuade the director to take him on as an assistant. Kazan didn't bite, and although Scorsese and Kazan would become friendly in later years, he concedes it's just as well: "Maybe you learn more from the work than from the man," he says, "something I didn't know at the time."