MOSCOW (AP) — A film about the last Russian czar's affair with a ballerina had its Moscow premiere Tuesday despite sparking outrage among some Russians that has been expressed through pickets, arson, and Molotov cocktails hurled at a movie studio.
"Matilda" has drawn fierce criticism from hard-line nationalists and some Orthodox believers who consider it blasphemous. The Russian Orthodox Church glorifies Emperor Nicholas II, who was executed with his family by Bolsheviks in 1918, as a saint.
Although most Russians accept that the affair happened, they maintain the movie's depiction is distorted and vulgar. The film loosely follows the story of the czar's infatuation with prima ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya.
What started out nearly a year ago as a campaign to collect signatures to protest the film's release took on violent forms in recent months.
Two cars were set on fire outside the office of the director's lawyer. Signs reading "Burn for Matilda" were reportedly found nearby. Unidentified assailants threw Molotov cocktails at director Alexei Uchitel's studio.
Uchitel said a few hours before the premiere that just getting the movie in front of a theater audience was an achievement.
"It's not just a victory for the film, but it's a victory for all reasonable people."
Russian lawmaker Natalya Poklonskaya, who served as the chief regional prosecutor in Crimea following its 2014 annexation by Moscow, spearheaded the campaign to ban "Matilda."
Poklonskaya sent numerous complaints about Uchitel and his film company to various law enforcement bodies, urging them to audit his taxes, review his finances and investigate him for incitement of religious hatred.
The controversy around the film reflects the increasing assertiveness of radical religious activists in Russia and a growing conservative streak in Russian society that worries many members of the nation's artistic community.
The czar and his family were executed by a Bolshevik firing squad in July 1918. The Russian Orthodox Church made them saints in 2000.
Uchitel recalled during an interview with The Associated Press his shock at seeing a note at a Moscow church seeking signatures for a petition against the movie. What upsets him most is that the protests started after the first trailer's release, month before the film itself would be seen.
The filmmaker said he met with Poklonskaya earlier this year to defuse the tensions and asked her to at least see the movie first.
"As soon as I've offered it to her, I heard, 'No, I'm not going to watch it.' I didn't have anything else to tell her," Uchitel said.
Poklonskaya says that because Nicholas II is a saint, his private life is off-limits.
"Does this film teach patriotism? Does it teach you to love your motherland? I don't think so," she told the AP earlier this month. "You need to respect people. Freedom without bounds is lawlessness and chaos."
The lawmaker also thinks Uchitel should be accountable to Russian taxpayers who might be offended by the film because the production received state funding. Uchitel said one-third of the budget for "Matilda" came from state coffers.
Poklonskaya said she has been such a devoted anti-"Matilda" campaigner because of 100,000 voters who signed petitions who felt their "rights were violated," adding: "Religious feelings have been hurt."
Uchitel, his team, and movie theaters have reported receiving anonymous threats vowing revenge on those who smear the czar's memory. Russia's largest cinema chain said it had contacted police and would not be showing the movie because of safety concerns.
The chain eventually decided to screen the film after all after receiving assurances from police.
Four people were arrested after several cars outside the office of Uchitel's attorney were set on fire in September. The suspects included Alexander Kalinin, the leader of an obscure Christian Orthodox group who publicly condoned the vandalism.
Poklonskaya denied being connected to alleged arsonists and threat-makers.
"An Orthodox believer will never commit a crime. He will go and pray and file complaints about crimes," she said.
Despite the recent arrests and the police's willingness to provide extra security at movie theaters, the film's Polish and German leading actors are not taking part in any promotional events in Russia.
"They are really scared of physical violence against them, that's why they're not going to come, and it's not just an excuse," Uchitel said.
"Matilda" was shown to a selected audience on Monday at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, where Kshesinskaya danced 100 years ago. Outside, several people read prayers and displayed placards opposing the movie.
"How will the director look God in the eyes? They spit in the czar's face, and it's the same as spitting in the face of our people," protester Natalya Radysh said.
Uchitel said he invited the critics inside to see the film so they would have a better basis on which to condemn it, but they declined.
"Maybe if they had watched, there would be no placards," he said.
Irina Titova in St. Petersburg, Russia, contributed to this report.