Issue 60 (2018)

Aleksei Uchitel’: Matilda (Matil’da, 2017)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin© 2018

matilda No Russian film of 2017 has gained as much fame or notoriety as Matilda, thanks to the concerted efforts of two Russian MPs, Natal’ia Poklonskaia and Vitalii Milonov, and some hate-mongering religious fanatics. The controversy began two years ago, in the spring of 2016, with the release of the film’s first trailer about the love affair between the heir to the Russian throne and a ballerina. In November 2016, Poklonskaia seemed to have abandoned her parliamentary duties in order to single-mindedly attack the future film that she would never even see. The hate campaign was waged for many months, day-in day-out. The rationale behind the onslaught was that any reference to the romantic shenanigans of Tsar Nicholas II (canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church)—even if they happened before his marriage and coronation—was “sacriligeous” and had to be punished. However, it was more than an attempt to curb free speech—a commonplace practice in Putin’s Russia. The whole affair was overblown to absurd proportions and made Poklonskaia a laughing-stock in the eyes of Russian Internet users. It also, inadvertently, boosted the film’s stature, turning an otherwise ordinary historical melodrama into an event. Poklonskaia’s aim appears to have been to get the film banned, but her efforts were doomed from the beginning. First of all, there is nothing remotely “indecent” about the film, and any historical inaccuracies therein play in favor of Nicholas II, not against him. If anything, the tsar is depicted as a better human being than he really was. Secondly, the director Aleksei Uchitel’ was a tough nut to crack. He himself is part of the establishment, holding the title of People’s Artist of the Russian Federation, and supported Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. So the outcome—the Russian premiere on 26 October 2017, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution—went ahead as planned, without any major incidents, and forever silenced Poklonskaia and Milonov who had predicted bomb attacks on the movie theaters and other horrors (“Russia will die if this abominable film is ever released!”).

I watched the film in a provincial Russian multiplex on the opening day. There were seven or eight people in the audience, and they winked at each other conspiratorially; one viewer openly admitted that he would never have come if it hadn’t been for Poklonskaia’s “advertising.” There may have been a third reason for the film’s impregnability on which I will speculate at the end of the review. Now let’s leave alone the political hullabaloo and look at the facts of the case.

matildaMatilda is a picturesque historical melodrama, magnificently shot by cinematographer Iurii Klimenko. I could wish for more history, but the genre dictates its rules. It all begins at the Mariinsky Theater with a performance where the prima-ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya (Michalina Olszańska) inadvertently bares her breast, to the shock of the royal audience and the awe of young Nicholas (played by the German actor Lars Eidinger, who fits the role remarkably well, partly because of his uncanny resemblance to the last Russian emperor). His father, Alexander III (played by the ubiquitous Sergei Garmash), is supportive of “Nikki”and even encourages him to get involved with the ballerina. However, after a near-fatal railroad accident in 1888 (the most lovingly filmed train disaster since Uchitel’s own The Edge [Krai] in 2010), he slowly fades away, while the empress Maria Fedorovna (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) aggressively imposes the German princess Alix (Luise Wolfram) on Nikki, who is noble and decent but weak-willed and reluctant to become a tsar. As if things were not complicated enough, enter “Count Vorontsov” (Danila Kozlovskii, in a completely unnecessary role), a jealous bearded Cossack straight out of caricatured Hollywood versions of Russian history and literature. Vorontsov immediately becomes a pawn in the intricate political game around the clueless Nicholas before dying in the flames of a bomb-rigged ferry.

matilda Matilda, in the meantime, holds her own. She flirts with the Grand Duke Andrei (played by Grigorii Dobrygin), boasts of innumerable love affairs—to the chagrin of Nicholas who seems to believe her outrageous stories, and generally makes his life hell. At some point, one gets tired of Nikki’s endless dartings between Malia (Matilda) and Alix (the future empress Alexandra Fedorovna), between love and duty. The middle part is frankly boring, except, perhaps, for the love scene that ignited such ire among those who had never seen it. It is very discreet, even chaste. On the other hand, some characters whet the viewer’s appetite that goes frustratingly unfulfilled: the evil “Doctor Fischel” (Thomas Ostermeier) as a predecessor of Dr Mengele, Ober-Procurator of the Synod Pobedonostsev (Konstantin Zheldin), and the secret police chief Vlasov (Vitalii Kishchenko), the self-styled “keeper of the peace.” Evgenii Mironov plays a small but interesting role of Ivan Karlovich, the director of the Imperial Theaters, who states that the Mariinsky is “better than a bordello—because a bordello doesn’t get state subsidies.” Little vignettes are sometimes more memorable than grand statements in this film.

After his father’s death, as the coronation time draws near—and the question of marriage becomes more urgent—Nikki’s behavior gets even more erratic and inconsistent. The Secret Police interfere by trying to assassinate Matilda, but she survives and, moreover, makes it to the coronation. Nicholas, who has come to terms with her death, faints right in the middle of the ceremony upon seeing her alive: another instance of artistic license, framing the film, but it is all within the boundaries of the genre. The weight of the crown is now heavy upon the Tsar, who has the “right to everything except love,” and his troubles have barely begun.

matilda During the festivities following the coronation in May 1896, nearly 1,400 people, lured by the prospect of free gifts, were trampled to death on the Khodynka Field. The event is shown sketchily in the film, the emphasis being on the arrival of the newly minted Tsar to the scene of the carnage, praying and asking forgiveness. The historic Nicholas II was too busy attending a ball given by the French ambassador on that day and visited the place only later, thus undermining the trust of his people and earning him the name of “Bloody Nicholas.” Here is where politics creep in again. In the wake of the Kemerovo fire on 25 March 2018, parallels were drawn with the Khodynka tragedy: in both cases, the belated regal reaction—and who is Putin if not a tsar?—was regarded by some as a catalyst for disillusionment and future upheavals (Goble 2018). The film, however, shows no such procrastination on the part of Nicholas II, thus returning us to the original thesis: Matilda is, in fact, a deeply conservative, pro-monarchy film, or, as Russian critic Anton Dolin (2017) put it: “Hamlet, Disney style.” Lavish sets and rich attire (KinoAfisha mentions 17 tons of fabric spent on making 5,000 costumes designed by Nadezhda Vasil’eva and Ol’ga Mikhailova), romantic music and majestic ballet scenes, vintage cars and the magic of early cinema—all create an alluring spectacle of a bygone era with plenty of melodramatic clichés but a tenuous connection to the real world.

matilda Last, but not least, it must be noted that the film’s release date was well-calculated: instead of discussing the consequences and the meaning of the Bolshevik Revolution—a discussion that could polarize Russian society and bring forth many unwelcome parallels with the present—the Russian public was called upon to mull over the premarital affair of the last tsar and to react to the in(s)ane pronouncements of Poklonskaia and Milonov. The 100-year-old event that apparently still scares the Russian authorities was successfully buried under tons of fine fabric. Score: Kremlin 1, Revolution 0.  

Sergey Dobrynin

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Works Cited

Goble, Paul. 2018. “Is Kemerovo Going to Be the Khodynka Field of Putin’s Last Term?” Window on Eurasia Blogspot 27 March.

Dolin, Anton. 2017. “O chem. Na samom dele etot fil’m?” Meduza 25 September.

KinoAfisha: “Matil’da. 2017”.

Matilda, Russia, 2017
Color, 127 mins.
Director: Aleksei Uchitel’
Screenplay: Aleksandr Aleksandrov, with Michael Katims and Aleksei Uchitel’
Cinematography: Iurii Klimenko
Music: Marco Beltrami
Production Design: Elena Zhukova, Vera Zelinskaia
Costumes: Nadezhda Vasil’eva, Ol’ga Mikhailova
Cast: Lars Eidinger, Michalina Olszańska, Danila Kozlovskii, Luise Wolfram, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Grigorii Dobrygin, Sergei Garmash, Evgenii Mironov, Thomas Ostermeier, Vitalii Kishchenko.
Producers: Aleksei Uchitel’, Vladimir Vinokur, Aleksandr Dostman, Valerii Gergiev.
Production: Rock Films, Mathilde Ltd., Fond Kino, Mariinsky Theater.

Aleksei Uchitel’: Matilda (Matil’da, 2017)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin© 2018

Updated: 2018