EIFF 2013: ‘Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari’ is an exuberant, theatrical ethnography

Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari

Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari
Written by Denis Osokin
Directed by Alexey Fedorchenko
Russia, 2012

Alexey Fedorchenko’s last film, Silent Souls, explored the funeral rites of the Merya people, following two men as they journeyed to cremate a spouse on the banks of the Oka River. They carried out strange rituals, such as tying coloured threads into the dead woman’s pubic hair, but it was presented with an honest naturalism and rooted in spiritual truth. The result was a profound and moving piece of cinema, depicting the sombre passing of an ancient way of life.

With Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari, Fedorchenko returns to the subject of custom and tradition, this time looking at the fertility lore of the women of the Meadow Mari, a pagan culture located on the left bank of the Volga River. Thrust directly into their singular world, without any narrative grounding, we are guided through a kind of absurd ethnography, composed of 23 standalone vignettes, each one focusing on a different woman whose name begins with the letter ‘O’.

Filmed entirely on location in a Mari village, with a cast comprising both professional actors and local inhabitants, it subverts the idea of authenticity, presenting scenarios that are based on genuine folk traditions but have been grotesquely altered using the language of cinema. The film experiments with different moods and genres, at times abandoning the whimsical tone for incongruous, disturbing sequences. It shifts to a gawky horror for some of the more implausible scenarios; in one episode, a group of men are given decidedly vampiric features, while, in another, an undead zombie is lured out of his grave to stalk a woman as she makes to leave the village.

Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari

Fedorchenko principally uses a head-on camera, drawing attention to the theatricality of every action, creating a world that appears to be sustained by extravagant performance. Shandor Berkeshi’s precise cinematography uses strong symmetry and overt framing, giving the impression that the action is taking place on an elaborate stage. Isolated from any wider context, the indigenous traditions are given a knowing, ironic treatment and do not carry the same weight that they did in Silent Souls. The women never seem to derive any spiritual gratification from participating in these spectacles, although many of the rituals do have a clear social purpose. The film is evidently a celebration of female sexuality and each indulgence demonstrates an instinctive, playful and frequently mischievous approach to sex, led by women rather than men.

Some of the women’s stories are more engaging than others but the atmosphere of obscure wonder and eccentric mysticism is consistently upheld.  Several episodes are extraordinary, constructed around striking visual images, such as the startling scene in which a group of naked, dancing women are splattered with Kissel, a traditional Russian dish that has the appearance and consistency of semen. The entire film looks stunning, with close attention paid to colour and its effect, creating rich, vivid landscapes for each scenario to play out on. There is an unlikely intimacy, derived from the consistently vivacious performances and the viewer’s uneasy immersion in this strange, folkloric world. Despite its ambiguity, Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari is a remarkable technical achievement and an oddly exuberant experience, replete with scenes of outstanding beauty and charm.

Rob Dickie

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