Last week we took an initial look at the controversy surrounding the glossy Russian melodrama: Matilda. Russian Orthodox devotees have been vocal in their complaints over the film’s disrespectful portrayal (in their eyes) of the last Tsar, Nicholas 2nd as the besotted, lustful (though indecisive) pursuer of the young Polish ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya. The affair continued through his official commitment to the future Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. If that wasn’t scandal enough, the portrayal is made worse in light of the tragic Romanov family’s beatification, hence the complaints on religious grounds. The depiction of saints in love scenes, particularly, is an anathema to Orthodoxy.
Yes, director Alexey Uchitel’s film is accused of disrespecting saints, lofty targets indeed, Nicholas is depicted as a “fornicator” and Tsarina Alexandra as a “witch”. Additionally, 2017 is the centenary of the Russian revolution, therefore the end of the Tsars, the start of Communism and a sensitive time for lovers and haters of both regimes. At least Matilda wasn’t released on the centenary of Nicholas 2nd’s assassination which will fall on 17th July, 2018.
If you don’t already know, provoking the Russian Orthodox church on home ground is really a bad idea. We are used to taking potshots at our own religious figureheads and their followers here, either in jest or with serious criticism in mind, but in Russia such action invites swift condemnation and confrontation, even of the physical variety. It’s practically guaranteed. However, after much complaint and protest, orchestrated at the political level by lawmaker and Duma member Natalia Poklonskaya and by pro-Orthodox community groups, the film was finally cleared for a 26th October release, across Russia in over 2000 cinemas. That’s one day after the anniversary of the October revolution, though it would also be screened selectively in Vladivostok, Ekaterinburg and Moscow in September. None of the 43 official objections filed by Poklonskaya were upheld by Russia’s Prosecutor General. As expected, the license for public release was not the end of the controversy or the protestations.
Christian State-Holy Rus, Tsar’s Cross, Sorok Sorokov (“Fourty Fourties”; a reference to the number of onion domes in medieval Moscow), the Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers and others maintained protests whilst events took a darker turn when threats and attacks were carried out against the production, those involved in it and even the cinemas that were scheduled to screen it. The Vladivostok premier was delayed by a bomb hoax alert and the scheduled 2nd Moscow screening was pulled after arson attacks were carried out on parked cars outside the production’s representative law firm. A note reading: “Burn for Matilda” was left at the scene. In Ekaternburg (where the Tsar, his family and aides were murdered) militant Orthodox extremists drove a minibus containing gas cylinders and petrol into a cinema security gates causing impact and fire damage, although fortunately the vehicle did not penetrate the building itself.
Uchitel’s studio was also the target of an attempted arson attack back in August, and whilst police declined to offer him personal protection they are maintaining a high level of security at protests and attempted disruptions outside “offending” cinemas. The paradox of christians committing blatantly non-christian acts in “defence” of christianity is a strange one, especially since members of the opposition, notably Poklonskaya herself, have refused to watch the film before voicing protest, relying instead on trailers and second-hand reports. This in part renders them complainants against a version of Matilda that only exists within their own minds; a situation made stranger still. In the LA Times, the director compares the current hysteria with the dour censorship of the Communist era:
“In the Soviet times, when I filmed documentaries, there was censorship,” said Uchitel, 66. “But the authorities at least watched our movies and told us what was wrong. They at least saw what they were talking about.”
We have to wonder which is worse. Uchitel is dismayed by the creeping power of Russian orthodoxy over the production and dissemination of art in various forms, simply by declaring it “offensive”. As mentioned last week; causing offence to an individual’s religion has been illegal in Russia since 2013.
At any rate, both of the film’s principal stars, Lars Eidinge and Michalina Olszańska declined to attend the official premier, citing security concerns and threats to personal safety, their appearance would have surely been too provocative for some, all things considered. The screenings and the protests went ahead with some arrests, one of the actors was offered coins to symbolise Judas’s 20 silver pieces. Meanwhile, members of the artistic community look apprehensively to a future where another’s sense of offense will be a creator’s legal problem. Censorship by any other name.
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