Russian Orthodox Church Takes Aim at Film About Last Tsar's Affair

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Hundreds of billboards affirming the tsar's love for his empress have been welcomed by director of controversial film 'Matilda.'

In the latest salvo in a dispute over a Russian film about the last tsar's affair with a ballerina, the Russian Orthodox Church has put up 300 billboards in Moscow displaying what it called "words about love" exchanged between the tsar and his wife.

The posters, which do not explicitly refer to the release of Aleksey Uchitel's upcoming feature Matilda, carry images of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra and quotes affirming the loving bond the couple had. The church says they are taken from the tsar's letters and diaries and affirm family values of  "faith, love and mutual respect."

Uchitel, who has faced fierce criticism and even abuse for his film – which focuses on an affair the tsar had with a ballerina, Matilda Kshesinskaya, before his marriage in 1894 to Alix of Hesse, the German princess who became the Russian empress – has welcomed the posters, saying they advertise his film, due to be released later this month.

The posters are the latest and most peaceful step in a dispute over the film, said to contain intimate scenes between the tsar and the ballerina, sparked a year ago when the first trailers were released.

Tsar Nicholas, who along with Alexandra and their children, was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, was canonized by the Orthodox Church in 2000. Conservatives in Russia consider any interpretation that strays from the saintly orthodox portrayal of the imperial ruler to be sacrilegious.

The controversy around the movie reached its peak late August when the office of Uchitel's company was firebombed and two cars parked in front of his lawyer's office set on fire, with leaflets scattered nearby reading “Burn for Matilda!”

Last month in Yekaterinburg, a man crashed his car into a movie theater and set it on fire, also claiming to protest against Matilda. And in St. Petersburg, an Orthodox Christian march was organized on the streets, calling for a ban of the release of the movie.

Responding to the violent incidents and threats of more violence against movie theaters planning to exhibit the movie from Orthodox Christian activists, two Russian cinema chains that recently merged, Cinema Park and Formula Kino, have refused to handle the film, which is scheduled for release on Oct. 26.

The film has also attracted fierce criticism from politicians, including pro-Kremlin parliament member Natalya Poklonskaya, who has said "you can't touch saints" or "show them having sex, because that offends the feelings of believers."

President Vladimir Putin has been at pains to remain neutral, saying he respects both the film's director as a "person who is very patriotic" and the politician, who is entitled "to her view."

Uchitel, whose previous films are acclaimed in Russia and abroad, told the Echo Moskvy radio station that the billboard campaign was a positive sign.

"I believe without any irony that this is a very good thing and will really support our film, because it completely corresponds to the content of the film," he said, adding that the final third of the film is devoted to the story of the love between Nicholas and Alexandra and ends with a caption stating they lived happily together for nearly a quarter of a century.

Uchtel has directed a dozen films and produced about twice as many. His awards include best director at Karlovy Vary in 2008 for Chechen prisoner of war film Plennyand Siberian labor camp drama Kray, which was nominated for the Golden Globes in 2011 and picked up a raft of prizes at the Russian national Golden Eagle awards the same year.