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Saturday, November 29, 1997

Upset about Anastasia's movie portrayal

By TERRY MATTINGLY

Scripps Howard News Service

Katherine Landsberg's great-grandfather died in a Stalinist purge.

Her grandparents were born in Russia and she grew up among Russian emigres in the United States. She is a faithful member of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, a proud, ultra-traditionalist body that has canonized Czar Nicholas II and his family as martyrs.

This helps explain why Landsberg went to Chicago's massive Water Tower Place mall recently on a personal mission, distributing educational leaflets as moviegoers flocked to see the first showings of 20th Century Fox's holiday-market offering "Anastasia." She is yet another example of a trend: true believers frustrated by entertainment industry invasions of holy ground.

"I just couldn't help myself," said Landsberg, a professional writer with an Internet firm. "I know Hollywood does whatever it wants to do with portrayals of historical figures, especially religious figures. ...But I don't think it's appropriate to make a silly movie about a martyr. Anastasia was a real person. This girl was brutally murdered. Leave her alone."

Landsberg's leaflet featured a photograph of the young grand duchess and the story of her life and execution, with the rest of her family, by Bolsheviks in 1918. Later, a series of impostors claimed to be Anastasia or some other royal sibling who miraculously survived.

"Now, 79 years after the execution of the Romanovs ... there has emerged a new impostor - one who, without remorse, will finally succeed in capitalizing on this tragedy," wrote Landsberg. "Please share this true story with your children in order to help prevent the distortion of history."

Mall security guards eventually asked her to leave, so she headed out to a suburban mall. This weekend, she plans to print up 200 more leaflets and do it again. Most people accepted her work without comment. Others bluntly asked why she was making such a fuss about a movie.

Landsberg's answer is simple: whether its makers intended to or not, "Anastasia" has painted a cartoon face on an icon. Everywhere she looks, on posters, billboards and television, she sees flirty images of a teenybopper princess who, in reality, did not live happily ever after.

Out in Hollywood, a 20th Century Fox spokesperson said the studio has no plans to release an official statement in response to "the handful of complaints" it has received. The movie's official World Wide Web page - in a niche between those for "Alien Resurrection" and "Home Alone 3" - doesn't mention any of the heroine's ties to Orthodox Christianity.

The movie itself is yet another comic confection pitting a perky heroine against a symbol of supernatural evil. In this case, the film could have been called "Beauty and the Priest."

The villain, Father Gregory Rasputin, is a holy man who is portrayed as having sold his soul to place a curse on the Romanovs. Anastasia accidentally escapes the revolutionaries and, after various chase scenes and musical extravaganzas, finds romance in Paris. In a pivotal scene, she looks to the sky and asks for "a sign" to lead her to "home," "love" and "family." Yet there are no positive religious figures to oppose Rasputin and God is never mentioned.

The producers of "Anastasia" say the film includes 350,000 animation drawings, in 1,350 scenes and was built on years of research. Yet no one seems to have discovered the religious themes in the real story.

"I bear them no grudge, because I really don't think they had a clue," said Bob Atchison of Austin, Texas, who leads a research and restoration project on the Romanov family's palace outside of St. Petersburg. He also operates an Internet site (www.pallasweb.com/anastasia) dedicated to the grand duchess, through which he has received many letters from people who are upset about the film.

"It really doesn't look like the people at Fox knew what they were dealing with," said Atchison. "Perhaps they didn't even know that she has been canonized as a martyr. ... But the truth is the truth and the facts are out there. Perhaps the lesson here is that it pays to do your homework when you start messing around with people's faith."

(Terry Mattingly teaches communications at Milligan College in Tennessee. He can be reached on-line at tmatt(at)sprynet.com)

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