The storm over the release of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is nothing compared to the furore over the lavish, home-grown historical Russian production of Matilda, by director Alexey Uchitel. Uchitel is something of cinematic heavyweight on home turf, whose work has been lauded (and often awarded) since 2003. His latest work represents a pinnacle of sorts, a production on a vast, lavish scale, commanding a budget equivalent to 25,000,000 USD.
That may seem ‘middling’ by Hollywood standards, where production costs exceeding 100,000,000 USD are routine, but Matilda is one of the most expensive films created in Russia. The ‘crown’ in this regard goes to 2011’s Burnt By The Sun 2: Exodus And Citadel (45,000,000 USD) although in relative terms, 1966’s War and Peace would have cost the equivalent of 67,000,000 USD, if made today.
Offending church and state is a precarious business in modern Russian. Political dissenters tend not to fare well, long term, whilst insulting “the feelings of religious believers” was made a criminal offence in 2013, following the 2012 Pussy Riot episode/trial. So, person ‘A’ decides that they are offended and person ‘B’ is suddenly a law-breaker? Is that all it takes?
The Issue and the criticism
Matilda is accused of disrespecting the now-beatified Nicholas II by depicting his pre-marital relationship with Polish ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, an affair which ostensibly ran from 1890 when they were 22 and 18 respectively, until Nichols’s coronation in 1896. It seems to be documented fact, the documents provided by the two main parties themselves, in the form of love letters, still extant. He was, however, already committed officially to future Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna, having started a relationship with her in 1889.
The film, ostensibly a romantic historical melodrama is criticised for being vague on historical narrative, factual accuracy and in the definition, role and historical “weight” of some of the supporting characters. The presence of Count Vorontzov, for instance (even on the poster), hints at a love triangle that never truly materialises, some have even questioned his role in the tale at all.
Additionally, Nicholas is portrayed indulging in unseemly and undignified behaviour (according to the film’s accusers), exhibiting his lust for the ballerina and participating in soft-core bedroom excursions. Hardly the appropriate way to depict a Saint or a respectfully revised historical figure, according to many, irrespective of the truth – or even likelihood – behind the depiction. Matilda has also been criticised for muddled, disjointed editing, as if it displaying incongruous snapshots taken from a much larger work and trying to shoehorn them into the production’s (hardly impoverished) 2 hour 10 minute running time.
“The famous scene, in which Matilda Kshesinskaya exposes her breast right on the stage of the imperial theater, brought on not trembling but some quiet laughter.”
In the furore, the artistry of the production has (unfortunately) taken a back seat, it’s undoubtedly visually spectacular, with rich cinematography utilising many extant historical locations in and around St.Petersburg (the city is its own film set). The lighting, cinematography and overall quality of image (from the clips I have seen) all look fabulous, as does the work of the costumiers, dressing up to 2000 extras in exuberant (and often heavy) period costumes and accessories.
Natalia Poklonskaya, former public prosecutor of Crimea is the individual behind the hate campaign (for that is what it is) and has made the whole saga into something of a cause célèbre for reasons largely outlined above. She is a member of the Duma and therefore carries enough political weight to make her presence felt. She gathered signatures, consulted advisory experts repeatedly petitioned the state attorney, posted numerous articles denouncing the production and even declared that the film’s star, German actor Lars Eidinger is a Satanist. This is undoubtedly a more damning accusation (no pun intended) than the current popular Russian dismissal of him as merely a “gay German porno actor.” In spite of all the fire and brimstone, Matilda was permitted licence to be shown in cinemas across Russia from October 26th. So that was the end of it? Not in the slightest, as you’ll see next week.
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