The film was shot in Mari language and tells 23 different tales influenced by the Mari folklore. Each of these stories represents the specific approach to sexuality of “the last authentic pagans in Europe”. In view of this, the film could be considered a Mari “Decameron”.
Comprised of 23 vignettes illuminating the pagan-influenced mores of western Russia’s Meadow Mari, the latest film from director Alexey Fedorchenko (Silent Souls) is a beguiling, painterly portrait of a culture driven by a ritualistic appreciation of female beauty and feminine sexuality.
Pagan folklore is alive amongst the Meadow Mari, a Finno-Ugric ethnic group in western Russia. Alexey Fedorchenko’s latest film comprises twenty-three vignettes that centre on the sexual lives of a collection of Mari women, recreating an idiosyncratic world of magical realism in which female fertility, beauty, and, ultimately, happiness is the driving force.
In Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari, all the women’s names begin with the letter O. There’s Okanay Oshanyak, whose aunt rubs her naked body in order to help its development. There’s Oshtylech, who picks through a bucket of phallic mushrooms in order to help select her ideal husband. And Onya, who, at the advice of a friend, smells her husband’s private parts to confirm her suspicion of his infidelity. Each story takes an endearing approach to love and sexuality as it exists within Mari culture. But the film does not shy away from the folklore’s darker undertones: witness the tragic consequence of Oropti succumbing to a forest spirit’s curse, or preteen Ormarche witnessing the older girls perform a naked dance at the whim of male ghosts. These fables exalt femininity, and the power it holds within — and beyond — Mari customs.
Collaborating once more with scriptwriter Denis Osokin, Fedorchenko continues his concern with the fading Mari culture. Abandoning the resigned and elegiac approach of 2010’s Silent Souls, here he employs an uplifting colour palette of rich blues, and casts pale-skinned actresses (both professional and non-) to deliver his painterly tableaux of rural life untouched by secular modernity. At times grotesque, but never vilifying, the film is a tender, beguiling portrait of a culture preserved within its folklore, inviting us to celebrate it alongside the Mari.