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EIFF 2013: 'Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari' review

★★★☆☆
Confounding audiences and critics alike at the Rome Film Festival, Sofia International Film Festival and now the 67th Edinburgh Film Festival, Silent Souls director Aleksei Fedorchenko's beguiling and perplexing expedition into the myths and rituals of the Russian Mari - Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (Nebesnye zheny lugovykh mari, 2012). Set against the scenic backdrop of the country's vast snow-capped Urals, Celestial Wives is a collection of 23 cinematic vignettes about Mari women - the Mari being a distinct group from the eastern Volga region, purported to be the last remaining practising pagans in Europe.

Fedorchenko takes us on a fractured journey through this mysterious land, culminating in an almost episodic tour of the peculiar customs of almost two-dozen women living within the same rural village, each with their own unique and (often) baffling mannerisms. Celebrating both the traditions of the Mari people and the empowerment of women, Celestial Wives' unstructured narrative pushes the intriguing folklore of its fascinating subject to the background in favour of a stronger emphasis on female fertility, as well as the sexual emancipation of the gender.

Yet, Fedorchenko's latest humanist oddity is no traditional celebration of women's rights. Rituals presented range from a lady whose genitals appears to be the make-shift nest of a raucous bird, an ominous dance where women are splattered with a Kissel (a Russian dish with the consistence and colouring of semen) and a series of other unusual - and mildly disturbing - sequences. With no tangible plot to speak of, these odd indulgences are never truly explained, culminating in a fascinating if not entirely comprehensible sideshow of inexplicable actions that may well limit the film to specialist festivals and the curiosity of open-minded anthropologists - wider audiences may be left to wait for this one.

While it's hard to truly invest in so many cryptic tales, there's little denying that Fedorchenko adds a sense of magic and gentle humour to this cavalcade of idiosyncrasy. The mood never fails to be anything less than cheerfully curious, and whilst these women's tales are almost entirely indecipherable, each one captures the imagination. It's just a shame that there's too much happening at one time to truly become absorbed in the film as a whole. Add to this the technical prowess of cinematographer Shandor Berkeshi and composer Andrei Karasyov, who both manage to capture the mystical aura and natural grandeur of this spiritual Mari sanctuary, and you have a rich tapestry of disorienting imagery.

An unquestionably chaotic undertaking that will no doubt bemuse more viewers than it ensnares, Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari is a truly unique and unforgettable experience. Fans of Fedorchenko's Silent Souls - picked up by UK distributor Artificial Eye last year - will no doubt welcome this deeper examination of the Mari race; whether they'll appreciate this markedly eccentric approach is another question entirely.

The 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 19-30 June, 2013. For more of our EIFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble

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