Controversial Film About Russian Czar Cleared for Release

A historical film about the last Russian czar’s affair with a ballerina has been cleared for release, the Culture Ministry said Thursday, despite passionate calls for its ban.

“Matilda,” which describes Nicholas II’s relationship with Matilda Kshesinskaya has drawn virulent criticism from some Orthodox believers and hard-line nationalists, who see it as blasphemy against the emperor, glorified as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Russian lawmaker Natalya Poklonskaya, who previously had served as the chief regional prosecutor in Crimea following its 2014 annexation by Moscow, spearheaded the campaign for banning the film. She even asked the Prosecutor General’s office to carry out an inquiry into “Matilda,” which is set to be released on the centennial of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

The lavish production, filmed in historic imperial palaces and featuring sumptuous costumes, loosely follows the story of Nicholas II’s infatuation with Kshesinskaya that began when he was heir-apparent and ended at his marriage in 1894.

The czar and his family were executed by a Bolshevik firing squad in July 1918. The Russian Orthodox Church made them saints in 2000.

“Matilda” opponents have gathered signatures against the film, and earlier this month several hundred people gathered to pray outside a Moscow church for the movie to be banned.

The film’s critics were recently joined by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed regional leader of Chechnya, and authorities in the neighboring province of Dagestan, who argued that “Matilda” should be barred from theaters in the mostly Muslim regions in Russia’s North Caucasus.

Director Alexei Uchitel has rejected the accusations and prominent Russian filmmakers have come to his defense. The film’s critics and its defenders both have appealed to the Kremlin, but it has refrained from publicly entering the fray.

On Thursday, the Russian Culture Ministry finally announced that the film has received official clearance.

Vyasheslav Telnov, the head of the ministry’s film department, said it checked “Matilda” and found it in full compliance with legal norms.

Asked to comment on statements from Chechnya and Dagestan, Telnov said that the film has been cleared for release nationwide, but the law allows regional authorities to make their own decisions.

“There is no censorship in Russia, and the Ministry of Culture stays away from any ideological views of beliefs,” he said. “A feature film can’t be banned for political or ideological motives.”

Disputes over the movie reflect the rising influence of the Russian Orthodox Church and the increasing assertiveness of radical religious activists.

Russia’s growing conservative streak has worried many in the country’s artistic community. A Moscow art gallery recently shut down an exhibition of nude photos by an American photographer after a raid by vigilantes, and a theater in the Siberian city of Omsk canceled a performance of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” following a petition by devout Orthodox believers.

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