Russian film ‘Mathilda’ premiered in Russia on Monday wrapped in a controversy. The film, which tells the story of Tsar Nicholas II affair with ballerina Mathilda Kshesinskaya, has been highly protested by the Orthodox Russian community.
The movie is set to hit theaters on Thursday, amid violent protests and controversy regarding the Kremlin’s defense of it.
Controversial royal affair portrayed in ‘Matilda’
‘Mathilda’ was screened to a selected audience on Monday at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater. While outside, several people read prayers and displayed placards opposing the movie.
‘Mathilda’ tells the story of the romance between prima ballerina Mathilda Kshesinskaya and the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II. The romantic affair involving Nicholas is backed up by letters and historical accounts.
Tsar Nicholas is a glorified figure in Russia, especially for nationalists and Orthodox believers, so outrage exploded over the portrayal of the unfaithful tsar. Nicholas and the royal family were murdered by the Bolsheviks as a consequence of the October Revolution of 1911. He was recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church as a martyred saint in 1981 and canonized in 2000.
About the film
The film was directed by award-winner filmmaker Alexei Uchitel and counted on a $25 million budget, the participation of over 2,000 extras, over 7,000 costumes and scenes shot in the Kremlin and lavish royal palaces to show all the Empire’s glory.
The movie release was originally set for autumn 2016 but has been postponed three times after facing a string of controversies culminating in threats and acts of violence in Russia.
On Tuesday Moscow’s premiere of the movie, seven people were arrested for disturbing public order. According to reports, all of those arrested were Orthodox activists, some singing religious songs and one holding a banner describing the film as “slander.”
Last month, Russia’s main cinema chains, Cinema Park and Formula Kino, announced they would drop ‘Mathilda’ from their lineup after receiving threats. However, they reversed the decision given the government’s assurance of peacekeeping.
Fierce battle against the film
The controversy around the movie began last year when Natalia Poklonskaya, an MP and former general prosecutor of Crimea, a region annexed by Russia in 2014, accused the film of portraying Nicholas in a negative light.
According to Poklonskaya, the film’s portrayal of the tsar was sacrilegious and his private life was off-limits.
“Does this film teach patriotism? Does it teach you to love your motherland? I don’t think so, you need to respect people. Freedom without bounds is lawlessness and chaos,” she said in an interview. “Religious feelings have been hurt,” she said.
The anti-Mathilda campaign brought together notorious figures and people who consider the film a real national threat.
“The film, by presenting a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church, Nicholas II, as a fornicator, and the czarina, Alexandra, as a witch, aims to desacralize the Russian Orthodox Church and to desacralize state power in Russia,” said Andrei Kormukhin, the head of a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian organization.
“We believe that this film is the result of betrayal by a part of the Russian elite who, just as they did in 1917 with the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II, is now preparing the overthrow of President (Vladimir) Putin,” added Gurmukhi.
Throughout the year, Poklonskaya took the anti-‘Mathilda’ campaign really seriously and submitted 43 requests to the Russian prosecutor’s office, calling for a probe into the legitimacy of the film’s funding, which included state money, and the issuance of an exhibition license.
She also gathered 100,000 voters who signed petitions who felt their “rights were violated.”
Suspicious Kremlin passive stand on ‘Mathilda’
Making the conversation about the film more heated, the Kremlin distanced itself from the controversy as the backlash against ‘Mathilda’ grew more heated.
In a series of surprising moves, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, condemned the violence, and also last month police arrested Alexander Kalinin, the head of an extremist religious group after it threatened to burn down cinemas screening the film.
More recently, Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office said after examining 43 complaints filed by MP Poklonskaya that it had found no violations in the filmmaker’s actions.The government’s passive position on the film has taken the film’s director and his supporters by surprise, given the state’s record of persecution of dissident artists in recent years.
Kirill Serebrennikov, theater producer known for plays and films that criticize the government’s close relations with the church, was placed under house arrest in August on fraud charges.
Russia’s liberal arts community has long felt under the pressure of President Vladimir Putin’s conservative rule. In recent years, Putin played up traditional values in a bid to win backing from everyday Russians and the powerful Orthodox Church.
According to critics, the Kremlin’s passive position might explain on the unavailability to control the outcome of the Kremlin’s longed focus and empowerment on Christian values having as result nationalism and religious extremist.