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An Erotic, Poetic Journey to the Mari El Republic

The Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari. A film directed by Alexey Fedorchenko, Russia, 2012.

February 4, 2014 - Heloisa Rojas Gomez - Books and Reviews

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The Russians have been delighting us with their intellectual culture and avant-garde artistic experiments throughout the whole 20th century as they do today, confirming a high level of creativity and aesthetic depth in their current artistic productions. The film The Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari by Alexey Fedorchenko, defined as “a hope for the freedom of arts”, proves it.

Fedorchenko’s documentary tale was recently presented in Krakow’s Kino Pod Baranami during the T-Mobile New Horizons Tournée 2014, which took place between January 10th and 16th and was met with great enthusiasm from the audience. The movie, shot by a film director from Ekaterinburg born in 1966, was in fact not new to cinematography; it had been awarded the Grand Prix at the MFF T-Mobile New Horizons Festival in Wrocław 2013, the FIPRESCI Prize at the 14th GoEast Film Festival and the Federal Foreign Office’s AwardMFF in Toronto 2013 for the Vanguard section. Its uniqueness granted it special mention during the film’s premiere at the 7th International Rome Film Festival: it was the only one representing Russia in the main contest, yet it was notshot in the Russian language.

In fact, the Mari language dominates Fedorchenko’s work, which is totally centered on the Meadow Mari people, who inhabit the region of Mari El Republic in the Russian Federation. This Ugro-Finnic people, known as the last pagans of Europe, is displayed in all its vitality, sexuality and profound harmony with the natural and spiritual world, which expresses itself in divine punishments by the Holy Birch, ethereal prayers to the Wind and sacrifices and sly revenges by the forest’s spirits. All this happens for and because of women, the unquestioned protagonists of the film, whose names always start with the letter “o”. This peculiarity sets the rhythm of the 23 vignettes, each dedicated to a woman, that compose the structure of the film: “a Mari Decameron”, as critics like to say. Alexey Fedorchenko underlines that it was not Boccaccio’s masterpiece that inspired him, but his friend and writer Denis Osokin.

04.03.02 celestiallives 02Osokin is the author of the book The Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari, which served as the basis for the screenplay, written in 2004. Denis Osokin played an interesting role in the making of the film. First of all, he provided the intellectual spark though which the Mari people were presented to the world for the first time in cinema, as ethnological research in the Russian territories is his passion. Before The Celestial Wives, Osokin had produced other niche works on Ugro-Finnic ethnic groups, such as the Merya and Odia, which Fedorchenko himself was very impressed with and which ultimately inspired his 2010 film Silent Souls. Denis Osokin also appears in the The Celestial Wives as a narrator and, in one of the last scenes, as a broken-hearted ex-alcoholic poet who reads a poem for his beloved girl who is married to someone else. The scene captures the audience’s attention as the only moment in the whole film in which a male character plays a meaningful, passionate role and not just a decorative one subordinate to the Mari female universe. This choice might be explained by Fedorchenko’s personal admiration for Osokin, “whose voice has a unique enchanting property” and whose work fits perfectly the film director’s cinematographic imagination.

Aleksey Fedorchenko has been questioned, sometimes criticised, for excessively mixing the real with the unreal, which is the reason why his filming style is often labelled as “mockumentary”. The most eminent example of such work is undoubtedly the movie First on the Moon (2005), narrating the puzzling, but still convincing and definitely charming adventures of the “first” cosmonaut, the victim of a failed trip to the moon organized in Stalin’s USSR.

What is the boundary between reality and imagination in The Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari? Fedorchenko answers that there is no boundary; everything is real because even the spirits are part of the real, though invisible spiritual world of the Mari people. The film is the result of several months of cohabitation of the film crew in the Mari El region. As Fedorchenko declares in an interview for Izvestia, the crew has even attended various mass ritual prayers to the forest’s spirits, which he presented in his film. Moreover, Fedorchenko sustains that no tension between the real and the unreal exists in his cinematographic production at all. What he tells is even more real than reality; it is just that reality is boring, while what he films is interesting. “Crude reality is television’s job,” he says. “Our [film directors’] job has an artistic task in the end.”

This is probably the right key to a proper reading of this magical, yet anthropological “documentary tale”, as Fedorchenko defines it. The Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari is, however, not only a documentary or a tale; it is also an intensive aesthetic experience in which drama intertwines with comedy, eroticism with superstition and meadows and forests with kitsch urban Soviet architecture. Alexey Fedorchenko’s film encompasses a wide range of artistic traces, such as Gogol’s grotesque, Pasolini or Parajanov’s sensibility towards echoing “fading things” and Lynch’s surrealism. According to the jury of the main New Horizons International Competition, Fedorchenko’s work embraces universal expressions of “tenderness, empathy and respect for human dignity”, while elegantly breaking old taboos, such as female nudity and the vast pagan heritage of Orthodox Russia. Even if after the 20th short tale we might feel a little bit tired of the “o” women and their weird language, at the end of the film, all its sparkling images reshuffle and, revealing their linear sense and beauty, they leave us totally amazed.

Heloisa Rojas Gomez holds a BA in Russian Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and currently participates in an MA programme in Central and Eastern European Studies as well as Russian Studies at the same university. She is also a member of the selection committee for the United World Colleges in Armenia.

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