Fated to Irony? The Kremlin, Matilda, and Russia’s faltering film industry

By Miranda Lupion

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Actor Aleksandr Demyanenko as Shurik in Kidnapping, Caucasian Style (Kavkazskaya Plennitsa) 

Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet is known for its drama – and not just onstage. From a shelved and then un-shelved ballet to an acid attack that partially blinded the company’s artistic director Sergei Filin, the institution has a knack for making headlines. Most recently, the Bolshoi has gained notoriety through a different medium: the movie Matilda, by Alexei Uchitel. The film dramatizes future Tsar Nicholas II’s fiery affair with 17 year-old Bolshoi star Mathilde Kschessinskaya. Off-screen, the film’s release has anchored another sensational storyline – a pivotal episode in the production that is Kremlin politics. A potential blockbuster in an otherwise suffering industry, the partially state-financed production faces staunch resistance from an ultra-Orthodox fringe, one normally aligned with the Kremlin. The regime’s public response may shed some light on which pro-Kremlin faction – the artists or the nationalist zealots – of its broad coalition it most values. And more broadly, the state’s failure to defend the film sets a negative tone for the future of the currently anemic but historically profitable sector.

Led by Aleksandr Kalinin, the far right “Christian State – Holy Rus” (a name conspicuously reminiscent of the Islamic State) group opposes the film’s depiction of the now-canonized Tsar. Asserting that the movie’s portrayal of premarital sex is blasphemous, members have gone so far as to light cars on fire and threaten to blow up theaters that screen the film. Fearing for their patrons’ safety, Russia’s largest cinema chains, Cinema Park and Formula Kino, have reportedly decided not to screen the film.

Wary of antagonizing the Russian Orthodox Church, it took the Kremlin more than three weeks to detain Kalinin. And while a few Duma deputies have spoken out, Vladimir Putin has yet to condemn the terror. At the same time, Moscow’s leaders lament the decline of the country’s film industry. Despite a few national cinematic bright spots, such as Oscar winners Burnt by the Sun (1995) and Leviathan (2014), over the past decades, Russian films have fared poorly, as audiences flock to see dubbed western movies. In 2016, of the top 20 highest grossing releases in Russia, only three were domestically produced. Viking came in at number five, earning 24.6 million USD. Flight Crew ranked seventh, and Three Heroes and the King of the Sea at 19. Collectively, the three brought in about $58.6 million. For comparison, the top three foreign movies (to note, first, second, and third on the list) generated combined total of $79.6 million. While Russian theaters are releasing a record number of both foreign and domestically-produced films, audiences still prefer Princess Moana (20) to Russia’s Snow Queen (49). In fact, a 2014 Anketolog poll found that 74 percent of those surveyed think Russian films are less popular than their foreign counterparts, and 69 percent of respondents prefer to see foreign flicks.

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A recent Ministry of Culture draft law aims to forcibly alter Russia’s movie landscape. If passed, this legislation would markedly increase distribution costs that Russian theaters pay to show feature-length foreign films. The hike is steep, raising the current fee of only 3,500 rubles ($60) to 5 million rubles ($86,000). The Ministry intends to collect 2.2 billion rubles ($37 million) from these fees, in turn funneling the revenue to domestic film production. Experts agree the legislation represents a misguided attempt to revive a struggling industry. Nevafilm Research estimates that this change would trigger a corresponding jump in ticket prices, decline in total releases, and subsequent seven percent (3.5 billion ruble) drop in box office revenue. As a recent Kommersant piece explains, at best, the fee increase would generate 620 million rubles (10 million USD). This number hardly justifies the law’s adverse effects: the closure of many retailers, which would then show neither foreign nor Russian films, a 74 percent decline in domestic film production, and a nine fold drop in the number Russian distributors.

Considering that Soviet cinema represented one of the Union’s most lucrative sectors, the decline of the movie industry is particularly bittersweet. The thaw era, following the death of Stalin, ushered in a golden age for Soviet film. In 1954, the state reorganized state film studio Mosfilm into production units, giving producers greater autonomy and financial freedom. This and other reforms catalyzed a production boom that gave birth to the Palme d’Or prize winning Cranes are Flying (1957) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962). More mainstream audiences enjoyed Lenoid Gaidai’s slapstick flicks, with three of his films, Operation Y (1965), Kidnapping Caucasian Style (1967), and The Diamond Arm (1969) making the list for the top ten grossing films in the history of Russian cinema. By 1967, the USSR was producing more than 130 films yearly. And even through the stagnation of the 1970s, Russian film attendance ranked among the highest in the world, with audiences flocking to see classics like The Irony of Fate (1976), and the Academy Award-winning Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears (1980).

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However, in 1991, the industry largely collapsed. It has, arguably, never recovered. Today, Russian films struggle to gain an international foothold outside of the CIS, and the number of typically more profitable co-productions has fallen from 27 percent to ten percent of all films released in Russia. Although the government has aimed to boost domestic production, including declaring 2016 the “year of cinema,” these efforts amount little if the Kremlin fails to defend films like Matilda. Its failure to do so is strange given financial support the movie has received, with funding from the Ministry of Culture and scenes filmed at locations such as Tsarskoe Selo and Uspensky Cathedral. A stronger proclamation in defense of Matilda would go much further in encouraging domestic production than draconian legislation. Yet, the clash between two nominally pro-Kremlin groups seems to have backed Putin and co. into corner that does nothing to further Russian film.

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