The Meadow Mari are a Finno-Urgic ethnic group living on the left bank of the Volga River in central Russia, sometimes called ‘the last authentic pagans in Europe’. Their religion—Mari Paganism—is based on the worship of the forces of nature, and mass prayers are held in sacred groves at specific times according to the positioning of the Moon and the Sun. Mari were persecuted during the Soviet Union, but their faith has been given official status by the Russian government since the 1990s. However, some native religion believers contend that there is still a trend to Russify Mari culture and religion.

It is against this background that Russian film-maker Aleksey Fedorchenko—a documenter of folk cultures across the country and region through acclaimed narrative and documentary films—decided to take on the culture of the Meadow Mari. Across twenty-three short chapters, Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari presents a catalogue of Mari fairytales and folklore, depicting in painterly tableaux a culture driven by ritualistic appreciation for female beauty and feminine sexuality. Vibrant colours, breathtaking cinematography and a gentle sensibility strike a harmony between scenes variously tender and grotesque.

The chapters alternate between the everyday and the fantastical. In the first, we see a young woman praying to the Mother of Birth (depicted as a white fir tree) to take away her birthmarks, which she says makes her ugly. In others, we see grotesque creatures from the forest deep or women dancing nude, their bodies possessed by spirits. By the end of Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari we understand the film not as switching between the rote and the unusual, but the everyday and fantasy feeding into and off of each other, each necessary to depict this culture which is so alien from our own. — Herb Shellenberger

Aleksey Fedorchenko

Aleksey Fedorchenko (1966) was born in the Orenburg region of Siberia, USSR, and he currently lives and works in Ekaterinburg, Russia.
After engineering studies, he worked on space defense projects in a factory in Sverdlovsk. In 1990, he became official economist then deputy director of the Sverdlovsk Film Studio. Since 2000, he has managed the studio’s production department, and participated in the production of over 80 films. Fedorchenko is now co-owner, film director and producer of 29 February Film Corporation.
He studied dramaturgy at the Russian National Film Institute, and wrote screenplays for documentaries and feature films. His 2010 film Silent Souls screened in Venice Film Festival, New York Film Festival, London Film Festival and Mar del Plata Film Festival. Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (2012) won the Grand Prix in the International Competition at New Horizons Film Festival. In 2019, Anna's War (2018) won the Nika Award—Russian's main national film award—for Best Film, and won the Russian Guild of Film Critics White Elephant Award for Best Film.

Filmography

The Last Darling Bulgaria (2019), Anna's War (2018), 'Breathing' in Where Has Time Gone (with Madhur Bhandarkar, Jia Zhangke, Jahmil X.T. Qubeka and Walter Salles, 2017), Angels of Revolution (2014), Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (2012), The Fourth Dimension (with Harmony Korine and Jan Kwiecinski, 2012), Australia (2011), Silent Souls (2009), The Wind of Shuvgey (2009), Bath Day (2008), The Railway (2007), ShoSho (2006), First on the Moon (2005), David (2002), Kids of the White Grave (2002)