Matilda is already the most controversial Russian film of the year, and there are still six months before its cinema release in October. And the political and media rows surrounding it are only strengthening a burgeoning resistance to cultural conservatism.
The film is a historical drama looking at the affair between Russia’s last emperor, Nicholas II (Lars Eidinger) – before he married Alexandra Fedorovna or was even crowned as tsar – and a famous ballet dancer, Mathilde Kschessinska (Michalina Olszańska). Since Nicholas II has been canonised as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church, religious activists claim that the portrayal of his affair and the erotic scenes in the film insult religious feelings, which is a criminal offence in Russian federal law.
The row started after the first trailer for the film was published online last year when it was revealed that the central story of the film is not just the affair but the love triangle between Kschessinska, Nicholas and his rival Count Vorontsov (Danila Kozlovsky). Various priests from the Orthodox Church have called the film slanderous and the “apotheosis of vulgarity”. Leading the crusade against the film is Natalya Poklonskaya, the former Prosecutor General of Crimea and current MP in the State Duma, who has filed several applications to the Prosecutor General’s office with calls for an investigation into the film. An initial check of the film found no signs of blasphemy. Then, a group of religious activists tried to get the film banned from cinemas by sending anonymous letters to cinema chains claiming that “cinemas will burn” if they dare to show Matilda. The threats were condemned by just about everyone, including government officials from the president’s administration.
Another expert report commissioned by Poklonskaya concluded that the film insults religious feelings and falsifies historical facts. It specifies that the portrayal of Nicholas II is negative because in the film he chooses Kschessinska, who is “disgusting and ugly in both physical and others senses; in no way good-looking from the point of view of classical European and Russian standards of beauty; resembling a mouse or a rat”. The full text of the expertise, which is based on just two trailers and the script of the film, comprises 39 pages and was shared by news site Meduza. The Ministry of Culture promptly confirmed that the expertise commissioned by Poklonskaya will not be considered when the decision on the film’s cinema release will be made as the authors hadn’t actually seen the film.
Matilda’s director, Alexey Uchitel, has filed a complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office, claiming Poklonskaya is slandering the film, and to the ethics committee of the State Duma, suggesting that she might be overstepping her ethical code as an MP. News site Znak recently reported that Poklonskaya might have been banned from public speeches by her party United Russia for being too scandalous, after she failed to make several scheduled appearance; the party itself later claimed this was not true.
While the bureaucratic battle continues between Orthodox activists and Uchitel, it’s worth noting that the film itself is not typical fare for censorship. More traditional scapegoats are Leviathan-like indie art-house films about which claims of “Russophobia” are easy to digest. Matilda, though, is a Hollywood-esque blockbuster with a star-studded cast (including heartthrob Danila Kozlovksy and I, Olga Hepnarovà and The Lure star Michalina Olszańska). And Uchitel is a well-known pro-government figure: in 2014 he was among the signatories of the letter in support of the Russian government’s position on the conflict in Ukraine and Crimea.
This row perfectly embodies recent fights over culture and censorship in Russia, where religious activists make frequent calls for exhibitions, theatre performances and films to be banned
This row perfectly embodies recent fights over culture and censorship in Russia, where religious activists make frequent calls for exhibitions, theatre performances and films to be banned. But unlike many other similar instances, the Matilda controversy edges further into surreal territory; the protests are so punitive and illogical that in response even the most conservative government circles turn “progressive” and officials release statements calling for censorship to be scaled back. It might be a case of the “frog in boiling water” phenomenon: while a lot of milder forms of censorship thrive in Russia, this time an inexperienced MP might have turned the heat up far too high. A conspiracy theory enthusiast could even hypothesise that this campaign was actually designed to make the rest of the Russian political elite look liberal and progressive by comparison. Others might suggest that we’re witnessing the most elaborate marketing campaign ever designed for a film, nearing the level of satirical performance art on the theme of state interference in culture.
But whatever the actual goals of the anti-Matilda cause, it’s now obvious that it has started the biggest truly public, mainstream discussion yet of censorship in Russia. Previous government targets were a bit too niche, like Novosibirsk’s Tannhauser opera or Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which were significant cultural events but nowhere as huge as this grand costume epic with its love triangle and international cast. In the wake of the dispute, the Civic Chamber has prepared a law proposal that would protect cultural organisations from religious activists, and various unions and public figures have published open letters in support of the film. All of these consequences might seem logical but they are in fact very unusual for modern Russia, where the majority and the elites almost always side with the accuser in cases attempted censorship.
Another unexpected consequence of the row, of course, is that it’s most likely going to make the filmmakers a hefty sum, regardless of the quality of a film that is now destined to be a box office hit. Matilda has been enjoying the Streisand effect on a huge scale, getting media coverage for a year before its scheduled release, with every tiny story concerning the film – like the new poster being unveiled – now covered extensively. In the future, Russian filmmakers who like to draw attention to the fact that domestic films struggle to compete with Hollywood in terms of ticket sales might want to make sure that their films are noticed by Poklonskaya and other activists: a sure path to free publicity.