Issue 41 (2013)

Aleksei Fedorchenko: Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (Nebesnye zheny lugovykh Mari, 2012)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2013

mariThe rich Russian/Soviet multi-ethnic mix, bolstered by declarations of peoples’ friendship, has provided a powerful impetus for films made by representatives of one ethnicity about another, with authenticity as an overarching concern. To name but a few highlights, the ethnic Armenian Sergei Paradjanov shot his Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv, 1965) in Ukrainian, while the Russian Aleksei Balabanov made his River (Reka, 2002) in the Yakut language. The Georgian-born Otar Iosseliani filmed his Et la lumière fut (1989), set in an African village, almost entirely in an (often surprisingly self-explanatory) tribal language of Senegal. At first glance, Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari, dominated by dialogue in Mari, a Uralic language used by some 500,000 people who mostly live in the Autonomous Mari Republic (in the Volga Federal District), belongs to the same tradition. Yet how authentic is it? Fedorchenko’s feature-length debut, First on the Moon (Pervye na lune, 2005), was disguised as a documentary to lend a semblance of credibility to an improbable story a Soviet secret mission into outer space during the 1930s. His film Silent Souls (Ovsianki, 2010)—a collaboration with the folklore-inspired author Denis Osokin—has ostensibly been positioned as a reconstruction of the rituals of the (non-existent) Finno-Ugric people of the Merya. Is Celestial Wives, the most recent product of the Osokin-Fedorchenko tandem, any closer to reality?

mariThe film consists of twenty-three novellas of various lengths and genres, ranging from one to ten minutes and from comedy and melodrama to thriller. Each novella centres on a woman or several women, all of different ages, whose names begin with O (possibly to demonstrate their link to Osokin): Opi, Oshvika, Okai, Orazvi, Okalche, Ovrosi, Oshalge, Okanai, Oshaniak, Onia, Ochina, Oshtylech, Olika, Osylai, Onoshka, Oshanai, Otsvoen and so on. The women live mostly in rural areas and are, as a rule, unconnected with each other. We observe them amidst their families, friends and nature, as well as gods, evil spirits and the living dead. These “Russian druids” (Sazonov) pray in sacred groves, both individually and under the guidance of karts (Mari priests), and make offerings to the Mother of Birth. Fedorchenko claims that he wanted to capture the disappearing customs of the Mari people as one of the last strongholds of paganism. However, according to a 2012 survey, the number of the Mari Republic dwellers practicing the traditional Mari religion does not exceed 6 per cent, while almost 50 per cent adhere to the Russian Orthodox form of Christianity (pleas to an icon of St Panteleimon can also be heard in the film). Besides, it is hard to take seriously the story of Oshaliak, relentlessly pursued by a zombie, who can only be overpowered by a policeman armed with a string of magic beads; or that of the twelve-year-old Ormarche barely escaping three werewolves who force Mari women to dance naked by pouring kisel all over them; or that of Osika, compelled by her mother-in-law, who intensely dislikes her, to spend more time with a wild blue moose than with her husband Misha; or that of Odocha, put under an evil spell by the big Unur birch tree because she was irreverently making it out with her boyfriend right underneath the tree.

mariIf Celestial Wives is anything to go by, the Mari women are not so much celestial but rather corporeal, and look just as gorgeous in their national dress as without it. The film has already been dubbed the Mari Decameron. Among its memorable scenes is Onalcha making love to the wind; Orika claiming that she had a chance sexual encounter with a ravine devil; and Oropti competing for her husband’s attention with Ovda, a seven-foot tall ogress (played by the irresistible-looking Boris Petrov, equipped with a pair of magnificent prosthetic breasts). One cannot help being reminded of ethnographic illustrations which, in puritan Soviet times, provided one of the very few legitimate excuses for featuring topless women in official publications.

mariDespite the fact that women provide the film’s main focus and interest, it would probably be inconsiderate in this context to interpret it as a feminist statement. Although men consistently “play a secondary role” (Kichin), their celestial wives and lovers are invariably expected to perform the traditional functions of carers and procreators, and seem to harbor few other ambitions. Even the musically gifted Oshaliak, who leaves her home town to receive singing lessons in Yoshkar-Ola, the capital city of the Mari Republic, ends up in bed with her tutor and plans to get married.

mariIn the treatment of exotic ethnic material Celestial Wives comes closer to the Kazakhstan as represented in Borat than to the Nuban tribe as seen through the lens of Leni Riefenstahl. Perhaps to offset the Mari’s potential wrath (Kichin expresses hope that they “should have enough common sense to realize that the film isn’t really about them”), the Head of the Republic, Leonid Markelov, is thanked in the film’s credits. The same credits reveal that quite a few, if not most parts have been played by non-Mari, mostly by students of the Shchukin Theater School and the company members at the Tabakov Theater in Moscow. They have been initiated into the mysteries of the Mari pronunciation by the language coach Aleksei Iamaev. It looks, therefore, as if Fedorchenko’s own, innovative and provocative definition of Celestial Wives as a “documentary fairy-tale” is well and truly justified.

Indeed, the falsification and manipulation of reality is rooted in cinema’s very nature. Rather than fight it, as some directors tend to do, why not turn it into something playful and non-ideological? The festival circuit, both within and outside of Russia, seems to have embraced Fedorchenko’s latest endeavor: launched at the International Film Festival in Rome in 2012, the film has been awarded prizes for the best script and camera work at Kinotavr 2013, as well as the prize of the Film Critics’ Guild; and the FIPRESCI and the Federal Foreign Office prizes at the 2013 goEast Film Festival in Wiesbaden. There is every reason to expect more awards in the foreseeable future.

Andrei Rogatchevski
University of Glasgow

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Works Cited

Kichin, Valerii, “Gde cherti vodiatsia: V konkurse Rimskogo festivalia proshel fil’m Alekseia Fedorchenko”, Rossiiskaia gazeta, 13 November 2012.

Sazonov, Anton, “Rezhisser Fedorchenko: Bol’shie zhertvy prinosiatsia, mogut i byka ubit’”, Snob, 20 November 2012.

Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari, Russia, 2012
Colour, 106 minutes
Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Screenplay: Denis Osokin
Director of Photography: Shandor Berkeshi
Production Design: Zorikto Dorzhiev, Artem Khabibulin
Music: Andrei Karasev
Cast: Iuliia Aug, Iana Troianova, Dar’ia Ekamasova, Iana Esipovich, Iana Sekste, Olga Degtiareva, Olga Dobrina, Iaroslava Pulinovich, Sergei Troegubov, Aleksandr Ivashkevich, Vasilii Domrachev, Denis Osokin
Producers: Aleksei Fedorchenko, Dmitrii Vorob’ev, Leonid Lebedev, Mikhail Shchukin
Production: Film Company 29 February, with the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

Aleksei Fedorchenko: Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (Nebesnye zheny lugovykh Mari, 2012)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2013