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As Russian Film Row Escalates, 'Experts' Malign Looks Of Last Tsar's Lover

A still from the film Matilda about an affair between a ballerina, Matilda Kshesinskaya, and the Russian Tsar Nicholas II.
A still from the film Matilda about an affair between a ballerina, Matilda Kshesinskaya, and the Russian Tsar Nicholas II.

Want to avoid the censor's wrath for offending the Russian Orthodox faithful? Don't suggest Russia's last tsar preferred a ballerina with a face like a "rat" to the "classic European" beauty of his tsarina.

That's a conclusion endorsed by a Russian lawmaker trying to quash the release of an upcoming biopic focused on a love affair between the future Tsar Nicholas II and a teenaged ballet dancer.

Natalya Poklonskaya, a former Moscow-installed prosecutor-general in Crimea and current member of parliament, escalated her battle this week, saying she has handed prosecutors an analysis by four "experts" who denounce the film, Matilda, as a sordid smear against Nicholas and Russian Orthodoxy.

Among the myriad complaints levied against the film by the authors of the report is that the ballerina at the center of the story, Matilda Kshesinskaya, was too ugly for the tsar.

Directed by Aleksei Uchitel, the film is slated to be released in October but has already stirred outrage among conservatives in Russia over trailers featuring steamy scenes between the characters of Nicholas and Kshesinskaya.

WATCH: Trailer For Matilda (In Russian, No Subtitles)

Poklonskaya, a member of President Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party, has said the film "scorns our saints," a reference to the canonization of Nicholas and his family as Russian Orthodox saints in 2000, eight decades after they were executed by the Bolsheviks.

She has also said it "clearly" stokes religious hatred and has asked Russia's prosecutor-general to investigate whether the film violates a controversial law allowing the imprisonment of those convicted of offending the sensibilities of religious believers.

'Utterly Homely'

Poklonskaya, who was hit with U.S. sanctions in 2014 in connection with Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, said that she submitted the analysis of the trailers and the screenplay by three academics to the Prosecutor-General's Office, and she has posted a copy of the report online.

The 39-page document concludes that public showings of the film would be "completely unacceptable," alleging that it disparages "the human dignity of Russian Orthodox believers" and "deeply insults their religious sensibilities."

Among the numerous complaints in the report, the four authors say the film portrays Nicholas as a dullard and criticize the choice of German actor Lars Eidinger to play the tsar, citing his previous work in the 2012 Peter Greenaway film Goltzius and the Pelican Company, which they call "pornographic."

They also say the film perpetuates the "myth" of "passionate romantic relations and (repeatedly consummated) sexual relations" between Kshesinskaya and Nicholas, who in 1894 married the German princess who became Empress Aleksandra.

State Duma Deputy Natalya Poklonskaya attends the opening of a chapel in honor of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in Crimea in October 2016.
State Duma Deputy Natalya Poklonskaya attends the opening of a chapel in honor of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in Crimea in October 2016.

The authors, all men who claim decades-long careers in academia, appear to be baffled that Nicholas could have embarked on an affair with Kshesinskaya, at one point veering off into a dissection of her appearance.

They write that the film builds a "negative image" of the tsar by having his character choose "an utterly homely" woman, qualifying this assessment by saying it is based on "classic European and, in part, Russian perceptions of female beauty."

The authors write that old photographs show Kshesinskaya, who had a Polish father, with "protruding, crooked teeth," an "ungainly figure," and a face that "resembled a mouse or a rat." This, they write, "contrasts with the objectively classic, vibrant European beauty" of Empress Aleksandra.

For good measure, the report adds that the choice of Polish actress Michalina Olszanska to play Kshesinskaya does not mitigate this alleged smear of Nicholas. While Olszanska has "satisfactory looks," audiences will associate the tsar with the real Kshesinskaya, the authors write.

The report is kinder to future viewers of the film. Noting that the analysis is based on the trailers and a copy of the screenplay for Matilda, the authors note throughout the document that they are avoiding revealing spoilers.

'Hysterical Sectarianism'

Commenting on the document, Uchitel, the film's director, told Current Time TV in an interview this week that "there's something terribly feeble-minded and obscurantist when a love story is considered shameful."

"As if romantic relationships are banned by some religion," he told the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "You know, all of this resembles some kind of hysterical sectarianism, and it seems to me there's nothing to discuss here."

Addressing Poklonskaya's beef with Matilda, Uchitel said not even he was in a position to offer a final judgement on the film given that it hasn't been released.

"I haven't seen the film. She hasn't either," he said.

That echoed a comment by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who noted on April 17 that Matilda had not yet been released, "as far as I understand the situation."

"And trying to judge a film that isn't finished is strange, to say the least," Peskov said.

On April 19, Uchitel filed a complaint with the ethics committee of Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, where Poklonskaya has served as a deputy since October 2016, the RBK news agency reported.

He wrote in the complaint that Poklonskaya, who was widely mocked last month for claiming that a bust of Nicholas in Crimea was seen weeping on the centennial of his abdication, had "potentially" violated parliamentary ethics with her "baseless" accusations against him, RBC said.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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