Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari

in 13rd goEast Film Festival

by Viliam Jablonický

This year's GoEast — Central and Eastern European Film Festival proved that this region has succeeded in a profound creative potential from the original authors and works, which only need more support in their non-commercial and artistic production. In Germany it has long been understood by a specialized festival in Wiesbaden (and Cottbus) to perceive the current developments in this territory, to reflect it and try to indicate its best works. The region is also actively involved in co-production projects and (especially, economically and organizationally) supports talented students from university film schools and young filmmakers. This investment means the region enriches its own profile in domestic visual design, but also knowledge by virtue of current events and social changes in the whole range of titles from feature films, documentaries, animated and experimental features, as well as short films, which can then be distributed in cinema theaters and television stations, not just in festivals.

Fortunately, even in a critical state of many Central and Eastern European economies, where the cultural needs are often relegated to the last place in the public and private budgets, extremely rewarding creative peaks in world cinema films are constantly being supported solely from domestic sources. Such is the case with Celestial Wives Of The Meadow Mari (Nebesnye Zheny Lugovykh Mari) by director Aleksey Fedorchenko, a film made possible by his own production company The 29th February Film Company (one of quite a few famous companies in Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk) in co-production with other companies in Russia. A director now in mid-life, he is not completely unknown; not only has he made documentaries but also fiction films, as in 2005's The First on the Moon (Pervye na Lune) and in 2010 with Silent Souls (Ovsyanka), which brought him further into international recognition.

The formal style of Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari, influenced from somewhere up in the sources of the classical Russian lyrical school, dates back to the beginnings of cinema — the golden age of silent film, containing some of the most remarkable feature films. It also (paradoxically) represents also one of the most modern cinema shoots ever, combining classical elements with a contemporary expression. This is not only particularly innovative content, portraying the complex metaphors of human stories of the unknown ethnic Mari rural communities, but also very pictorial and written emotional communication. It is indirectly linked to the visual timeline of original titles from Central and Eastern Europe, which had its champions in a magical display of stylized rural folk elements, or rather their use of expression-free communication, such as in the films of the renowned Georgian-Ukrainian director Sergei Paradjanov, but also later in the work of his younger contemporary, Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko. Aleksey Fedorchenko, however, adopts a much stricter respect for cultural and ethnological peculiarities of the population of the Autonomous Republic of Mari, somewhere in the northwestern part of European Russia, the Volga River over to the foot of the Ural Mountains, which no one except ethnographic experts would know much about. Any director could shoot a documentary film, but they would not achieve even nearly the same effect as this mini short-stories feature film; a mosaic of diverse and bizarre stories depicting young women yearning for the most banal, but also most fundamental, of human happiness, love, a partnership with a young and good man, but also health, friendship, a baby. This can be achieved only through magic and occult elements inherited from their forebears, which are most likely pagan in nature and touch almost any modern civilizing influences or Orthodox Christian culture. This only marginally flashes through when it should be treated with love and almost brought one girl into a coma, rendering her doctor and parents almost helpless. For them, real is what is for us magical, irrational, incomprehensible and mysterious, perhaps even from the effects of eastern cultures. But, rather, it appears from an authentic soul peculiar to unique expressions of a small ethnic group that does not want to give up their celebration of pagan rituals. At the same time they are also slightly raunchy stories with fine irony but also a deep understanding of human (retold) rural episodes, a kind of variant on Boccaccio's The Decameron, translated into the 21st century, where equally all must address fundamental human existential problems between the eternal questions of life and death. However, in the unrequited love for a girl who has decided to abandon tradition and make a career in urban opera, can someone send for her from the grave? And can this same magic fight off mortality when it accidentally discovers the local, but magic, acts controlling officer? A woman who is unable to share the love of her husband with the forest's naked giantess, may deliver her child out among the actual forest birds, and has tripped during pregnancy care and feeding. With the women being unable to no longer have a love affair with their own husbands, one man commits suicide. True, everything in the film is already framed from the first story of a girl-laying ceremony; under one of the trees a magical cult act requires a cure from moles and then hopes to be loved; or the symbolic dance naked girl watering fluid prepared from mysterious concoctions that are secretly competing for the young men present, something which the family and the whole village does not want...

Each story of a woman-girl is unconventional and uniquely placed in one of the four seasons. Most are also naturally erotic and sexually motivated, determined, but also follow the customs and traditions of a natural folk environment. The director's relationship to the female body expositions are very decent, leaving room for the viewer to be conceited, and just enough room for the imagination, often as the puzzle, to solve it, but also to understand the phenomenon of jealousy or rivalry. But even then the film returns to the substantial linking of man and nature, which has mysterious patterns and specific deities. The depiction of the Mari natives' residence exemplifies a closed marshy, meadow and forest, which itself exudes a certain magic. Its unique mystical elements are visually and creatively processed to stay in your mind with barely any influences or traces of other quality films. There is no trace of stereotypes talking and seeing the world because the representation of muddy villages and of wooden cottages seamlessly passes into artistic representations of mythology and the esoteric cycle of human life.

Edited by Steven Yates
© FIPRESCI 2013

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