After taking us on a metaphysical journey into the unique customs and traditions of a distinct northern Russian tribe with his 2010 Ovsyanki aka Silent Souls, Aleksey Fedorchenko revisits the region and its people to inform us of some of their more practical concerns, relating to sex and happy marriage - all seen from a female perspective. Fedorchenko believes "Nebesnye zheny lugovykh mari" [Eng. Title: Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari] to be his Decameron to the Mari people.
Presented as an anthology of twenty three short stories - unrelated, save the fact that all the characters' names start with the letter 'O', they range from minute-long snippets to ten-minute segments featuring pagan customs that Mari people had absorbed into their Christian faith in pursuit of sex and love. They don't see conflict between the two belief systems - for them, life exists hand-in-hand with death, and change alongside continuity. And shame and virtue are not defined by the deeds themselves, but the time, place, and context within which they happen.
For a people in close connection with nature and its surroundings, even simple acts like bathing in a stream or kissing under a tree have a sanctity and decorum associated with it. It is a world cohabited by fairies and devils, dead and the living, and where the long departed 'prepare' young women just about to embark on a life of marriage. It is also a world where blessings and hexes are currencies used to trade favours. The film focuses on the varied ways in which women have taken advantage of these customs and beliefs to empower themselves.
The cinematography, by using formal compositions of the landscape and its seasons, the people and their costumes, may have given the film a documentary semblance, but nevertheless evoke a variety of emotions - it is bewildering, enchanting, scary, touching, wildly funny, and also erotic. That's the reason why the film deserves more than a passing reference to Decameron, and Pasolini - it carries an authenticity and storytelling-by-the-camp-fire charm that Pasolini would approve of, and like him, Fedorchenko approaches the unscientific using visual poetry and inference. The film is not necessarily an anthropological study even if it might interest those into it - it gloriously celebrates the Mari way of living without judging their idiosyncratic beliefs.
Some stories may be too short to give insight into the broader context within which they're placed, but they are also among the more beautiful ones in the anthology - a bit like an imaginative haiku. One of my favourites is the touching story of Olika (Yekaterina Sokolova), a young bride who dies after a snakebite - I must've seen it separately a dozen times, but have yet to grow tired of it.
However, there are also beliefs portrayed in the film that are as outrageous as could have been conceived by a Marina Abromovic for her Balkan Erotic Epic - its fixation with genitalia and their functions can be off-putting to a prudish audience, but is nevertheless presented in a tactful manner without resorting to explicit imagery. The film ought to be seen by every adult as it is a celebration of life itself in all its shades, from a Mari, but importantly female perspective. Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Olga Gilova, Anna Grachova, Yuliya Aug, Aleksandra Masko, Yana Troyanova, Olga Dobrina, and several others
Apart from two long scenes, nudity is generally brief where depicted.
- Odacha (Yaroslava Pulinovich) is worried being groped under the sacred birch.
- Onalcha (Polina Aug) - who people say is the daughter of wind, offers to cure a man of 'fear', provided he doesn't turn back to look. Well, he does. (No nudity)
- Ovrosi is unimpressed in being chatted up by a guy who's about to get married, especially since one of the girls bathing in the stream is also his bride.
- Oshanyak (Anna Grachova) still has a young girl's features, and aunt Okanai (Olga Gilova) sets about 'luring out her beauty' the traditional way to turn her into a desirable woman, which apparently involves a good bit of rubbing. :-)
- Oropti (Yulia Aug) just realises that a wicked hex placed by the giant forest woman had gone, as a result of which her husband can now touch her vagina again.
- Oshalyak (Olga Dobrina) is a music student getting some extra tutoring by her professor after college hours.
- Ormarche - she's only twelve, but begs to be allowed to join the older girls in their 'kissel' festival. A traditional Russian dish that has the consistency similar to that of semen, kissel is offered to invoke ghosts. They turn up to bless each of the girls with a good husband - the girl who picks up the thrown pig's hoof get to dance and impress the ghosts first. The dancer we get to see for the longest, in all her glory, is Pokavi, played by Aleksandra Masko. She's joined by others - Viktoriya Kozhurina, Galina Trofimova, Natalya Ni, Aleksandra Andreyeva, Yekaterina Orlova, Karina Tsvetkova, Veronika Leushina, and Anna Zoteyeva. By the time villagers arrive to chase away the ghosts, they'd already left, leaving them to get an eyeful of their fair and totally naked maidens splashed in kissel (inserted at the end of my compilation).
- Orika (Yana Troyanova) had picked up some bruises walking through the forest when returning from a party - her husband had stayed behind drinking. When he eventually stumbles home, she tells him that the bruises were caused by the ravine devil Vuvar, who raped her after seeing her travelling alone.
- Osylay (Veronika Aktanova), whilst getting ready for a party, trims her pubic hair in the hope of seducing a boy that she likes (implied nudity).