MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian religious conservatives are waging a campaign to block the release of a “blasphemous” film depicting an affair between a young ballerina and the last tsar, considered a martyr by the Orthodox church.
The opposition has ranged from street demonstrations to appeals from prominent clergy. And according to the movie’s director, some activists are making physical threats against cinemas who plan to show it.
Alexei Uchitel’s “Matilda”, to be released internationally in late October, tells the tale of the late-19th century romance between Nicholas II, before he became tsar, and half-Polish dancer Matilda Kshesinskaya, who described the relationship in her memoirs.
Nicholas “loved me dearly”, she wrote. “I adored Nikki, I thought only of him, of my sweetheart.”
Cinema operators planning to show “Matilda” are coming under pressure, Uchitel told Reuters in an interview - ranging from behind-the-scenes lobbying to arson threats.
“The tense atmosphere for the studio these past few months, for those who are making the movie and for the exhibitors, is a serious test,” he said.
“They could say (to a cinema) over the phone: You have two showings, for the sake of form, and that’s it,” Uchitel said.
“I’m not afraid of an official ban in particular regions, but I fear this kind of pressure.”
He said the main Russian distributor of the film, Karo, had received a letter from a hardline Orthodox Christian group, calling itself “Christian State - Holy Rus”.
Karo representatives said they had no immediate comment. There was no answer to phone calls Reuters made to numbers listed on the “Holy Rus” website, and it did not respond to an email requesting comment.
But in a statement on the site, the group said the film was an insult to Russia and its history and warned it could drive some people to commit violence, such as setting cinemas on fire. It denied it planned to do anything illegal or had anything to do with acts already committed.
Last week, someone tried to set fire to a studio complex in St Petersburg that houses Uchitel’s studio. There was minor damage to a part of the complex used by another organization.
In the early hours of Monday morning, a man drove a car packed with gas canisters into the entrance of a cinema in Yekaterinburg, the city where Bolshevik revolutionaries executed the Tsar and his family.
Authorities said the driver had been arrested. The cinema, which caught fire, had been hosting a film festival at which the chairman of the festival jury spoke in support of Uchitel.
Prominent Russian arts figures say there is a broader trend of artistic freedom being restricted by cultural conservatives who have grown in influence under President Vladimir Putin.
But Deputy Culture Minister, Vladimir Aristarkhov, has praised the film and called the campaign against it slanderous. Uchitel said he had nothing but support from the ministry.
For many religious believers, the story told in “Matilda” is the slander.
Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, head of the Orthodox Church’s Patriarchal Council on Culture, said in response to Reuters’ questions that the film contained “lies about our history, lies about the circumstances of the life of the royal family”.
“From an artistic point of view it is simply unbelievably crass.”
But he said the church was not seeking to ban the film and all protests against it should be within the law.
Natalia Poklonskaya, a pro-Kremlin member of the lower house of Russia’s parliament, said the film was an insult to religious believers. She said she had filed a request to the Prosecutor-General’s office asking it to protect them from the movie.
Three Muslim-dominated regions of southern Russia - Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia - have said they will not allow cinemas to show “Matilda”.
Jambulat Umarov, a minister in Chechnya, told Reuters a movie should accurately portray historical events and “not lead the viewer into the boudoir”.
“Why stir up hatred on the other side? Why stir up rage?” he said, referring to the protests against the film.
At a red-brick studio on the banks of the Moscow river, Uchitel spoke to Reuters as he worked with a sound engineer to finish off a scene depicting the coronation of Nicholas II.
The tsar and his family were executed soon after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution - an event whose hundredth anniversary is being commemorated this year.
“We need to win and I hope that’s what happens, the film needs to go on release, and widely,” he said.
That is now in the hands of cinema operators.
A company called Centrefilm, which owns four cinemas in Moscow, said it would not show the film, branding it as “blasphemous and insulting”.
Two big cinema companies, Luxor and Cinemapark, said they would screen it.
“We tell police about any threats we get,” a spokeswoman for Cinemapark said, without elaborating.
Additional reporting by Natasha Shurmina in Yekaterinburg and Tatiana Ustinova in Moscow; Editing by Christian Lowe and Andrew Roche