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ROME — You can’t always judge a film by its title, but when that title is Celestial Wives of Meadow Mari (Nebesnye Ženy Lugovykh Mari), you can be fairly certain that what you’re about to see is not entirely conventional. In that sense, director Aleksei Fedorchenko (Silent Souls) does not disappoint, although viewers may experience a tad too many WTF moments in these vaguely interconnected stories set among the ethnic Mari peoples of Western Russia. Picture Beasts of the Southern Wild in the snowcapped Urals, with two-dozen female characters whose names all start with the letter “O,” and with enough bugged out sexcapades to earn a slot on John Waters’ DVD shelf, and you’ll get a brief idea of what’s in store.
Press notes suggest that the movie “can be described as a sort of ‘Mari Decameron’,” and while that doesn’t exactly help clarify matters, it does reveal how far out in left field the scenario (written by Denis Osokin) winds up going. With no actual plot to speak of, the narrative consists of 22 separate stories that are linked together by the same isolated village location and several recurring characters (with names like Oshvika, Onya, Orupti, Opi, etc.), although the major point they have in common is an overriding weirdness and indulgence in various pagan rituals that are demonstrated but never really explained.
As such, Celestial Wives, which premiered in competition at the Rome Film Festival, will find its biggest believers on the festival circuit, while Fedorchenko’s growing reputation (Silent Souls received enough critical acclaim to garner a small U.S. release) could ensure pickups with boutique distributors willing to take a risk.
The film may also achieve a certain cult status, as it contains some of the crazier (though never fully graphic) sex sequences in recent memory. This is evident from the opening scene, where a woman casually tells her friend: “My husband bunked me so hard he dislocated my legs” — this just after a bit where she’s pelted with snowballs by revelers decked out in freaky tribal costumes. Other scenes include a magical bird wedged in a woman’s vagina, a young man imitating a newborn baby as he suckles his lover’s breast, a coterie of naked girls doused with a Russian dish known as kissel (which basically looks like semen), and one rather funny sequence where a jealous wife tries to implicate the strategy laid out in the R&B track, “Smell Yo D—.”
While Fedorchenko does indeed find humor in certain moments — especially a segment where an aspiring singer is haunted by a zombie dressed in a windbreaker — the structure of the narrative and the sheer nuttiness of the proceedings make it hard to invest in so many esoteric stories, leaving the impression that Celestial Wives would play better to the Mari people themselves than to international art houses.
Despite how truly off-kilter it is, the movie does benefit from an impressive technical package, including gorgeous landscape imagery by cinematographer Shandor Berkeshi (who shot Ilya Khrzhanovkiy’s 4, which this movie occasionally recalls), nuanced sound design by Timofei Shestakov (who worked on The Fourth Dimension, which Fedorchenko directed alongside Harmony Korine) and a score by Andrei Karasyov that provides a few flashes of poetry amid all the outré action.
Production companies: The 29th February Film Co., Kenpo-Kaliy Co., Red Arrow Film Co.
Cast: Julia Aug, Yana Esipovich, Vasiliy Domrachev, Daria Ekamasova, Olga Dobrina
Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Screenwriter: Denis Osokin
Producers: Dmitri Vorobyov, Aleksei Fedorchenko
Co-producers: Mikhael Shchukin, Leonid Lebedev
Director of photography: Shandor Berkeshi
Production designers: Zorikto Dorzhiev, Artem Habibulin
Music: Andrei Karasyov
Costume designer: Olga Gusak
Editor: Roman Vazhenin
Sales: The 29th February Film Co.
No rating, 106 minutes
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