Controversial film about Russian czar cleared for release

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MOSCOW (AP) — A historical film about the last Russian czar's affair with a ballerina has been cleared for release, the Culture Ministry said Thursday, a decision that follows months of disputes and angry 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.

The controversy around the film, unparalleled in Russia's post-Soviet history, has reflected the church's rising influence and the increasing assertiveness of radical religious activists.

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.

A devout Orthodox believer, Poklonskaya 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.

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 for viewers over 16.

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

"No state organ or non-government organization can ban production or release of a feature film for political or ideological motives," Telnov said.

"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.

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.

Matilda'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.

Kadyrov, who has encouraged strict observance of Islamic rules in Chechnya, criticized the ministry's decision and denounced the movie as "immoral" on Instagram. He added that people in Chechnya wouldn't "waste time" on watching the movie, a statement that sounds like an order in the region tightly controlled by Kadyrov's feared security forces.

In Ingushetia, another predominantly Muslim province next to Chechnya, the head of the only theater in the region said he won't show "Matilda."

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

Hard-line lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, who comes from St. Petersburg, urged the city authorities to bar Matilda from theaters. In remarks carried by RIA Novosti news agency, Milonov described the film as "an attempt to sow devilish seeds of revolutionary fermentation, an attempt to revive Bolshevik lies about the last Russian emperor."

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