Saturday, August 09, 2014

Rural Route ’14: Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari

One might say the women of the Mari El autonomous republic are in touch with their inner Earth Mothers. They are comfortable with nature and their sexuality, but the local men folk can be vexing. A parade of Mari women will experience the rituals of life in their village on the Volga in Alexsei Fedorchenko’s Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Rural Route Film Festival in New York.

Screenwriter Denis Osokin clearly has an affinity for “O” names, since every name of the women featured in Celestial start with that letter. It turns out there are a lot of Mari names like that. In fact, there are more names than stories. Not just episodic, many of the women’s collected stories are mere fragments or jotted sketches, with little development of any kind.

Nor is there any sort of through-line, Our Town style narrator, or callbacks to previous incidents to provide connective tissue. Instead, Fedorchenko and Osokin are purely concerned with ambiance and local color. Inconsistent by its nature, the better arcs (that could credibly stand alone as short films) are those that carry a pronounced folkloric air, such as the standout tale of Onalcha, a purported sorceress and “Daughter of the Wind.” Twelve year old Ormarche’s encounter with three werewolves is also quite memorable, but the sexualized imagery imposed the older women in her party might be problematic for some viewers.

Cinematographer Shandor Berkeshi nicely captures the verdant ruggedness of the Uralic region and composer Andrei Karasyov’s traditionally-inspired music is surprisingly catchy. Fedorchenko and Osokin really do give the audience a vivid sense of Mari life (even though they reportedly take considerable liberties with the details). However, it is nearly impossible to form an attachment to any of the assorted characters or to get caught up in the plethora of narrative fragments.

Fedorchenko has already made something of a festival name for himself with the powerfully meditative Silent Souls and his nicely turned contribution to the anthology film The Fourth Dimension. He certainly has a strong affinity for the pagan legends and hardscrabble living conditions of Russia’s far flung ethnic conclaves, but Celestial’s ADD-like lack of focus undermine attempts to submerge viewers in the Mari milieu.

He is still a filmmaker to watch, but Celestial will probably be remembered as a minor oddball entry in his filmography. More interesting on paper, Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari screens tomorrow (8/10) at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of this year’s Slavic-focused Rural Route Film Festival in New York.