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Film about Russian tsar's affair with ballerina cleared for release

A historical film about the last Russian tsar's affair with a ballerina has been cleared for release, the culture ministry said, despite passionate 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.

Russian politician Natalya Poklonskaya, who previously served as the chief regional prosecutor in Crimea following its 2014 annexation by Moscow, spearheaded the campaign for banning the film.

She 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 tsar and his family were executed by a Bolshevik firing squad in July 1918.

The Russian Orthodox Church made them saints in 2000.

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.

The film's critics were recently joined by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed regional leader of Chechnya, and authorities in the neighbouring province of Dagestan, who argued that Matilda should be barred from cinemas in the mostly Muslim regions in Russia's North Caucasus.

Director Alexei Uchitel has rejected the accusations and prominent Russian film-makers have come to his defence.

The film's critics and its defenders have both 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.

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

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

"There is no censorship in Russia, and the ministry of culture stays away from any ideological views of beliefs," he said.

"A feature film can't be banned for political or ideological motives."

Disputes over the film reflect the rising influence of the Russian Orthodox Church and the increasing assertiveness of radical religious activists.

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 theatre in the Siberian city of Omsk cancelled a performance of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar following a petition by devout Orthodox believers.


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