Sorting out the Roman Polanski saga is not easy. His rape case is not only 31 years old, it is rife with sordid exaggerations, rumour-mongering, intrigue and complex moral issues that can, and do, cloud the facts.
So it is remarkable that director Marina Zenovich does such a splendid job of clarifying what happened. Her new documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, is a sober second look.
Meticulously crafted and keenly thought out, the film also serves as a useful historical document. It illuminates its time period, delves into moral hypocrisy and shows the evolution of muck-raking celebrity journalism.
No matter what you think of Polanski or his crime of "unlawful sexual intercourse," the film offers the basis for an intelligent debate. This is perhaps the first time the public has had the chance to do so with most of the facts.
The film not only delves into the events of March 1977, when the celebrated filmmaker had sex with a 13-year-old schoolgirl in Jack Nicholson's house, but looks at patterns throughout Polanski's life, before and after. That takes him from childhood, when he survived the Holocaust by escaping the Warsaw ghetto; to the tragedy of the Manson murders whose victims included his pregnant wife Sharon Tate; to his life in exile in France after he escaped further jail time by fleeing the United States in 1978. He never returned.
Polanski does not participate directly in this film, although I cannot imagine him being upset at its reasoned tone. In past interviews, I personally have discussed exile, and his desire to eventually return to the U.S., with Polanski. But he rarely has engaged in these conversations in recent years. It may now be simply too late in life for him to sort out this legal quagmire.
The film contains many vintage clips of him being interviewed. In fresh interviews, others speak on his behalf, or at least about the case.
Besides key lawyers in the case, as well as friends in the filmmaking community, that roster includes Samantha (Gailey) Geimer, the rape victim. She makes it clear she believes that both she and Polanski got a life sentence for what happened between them.
The film never excuses Polanski's shameful behaviour. Always intrigued by young women, he did have sex with an under-age girl, taking his fascination to illegal extremes. Samantha Gailey, then a child, should never have been drugged and seduced by an adult Polanski.
The film, however, also reveals astonishing facts about the apparent miscarriage of justice perpetrated by the celebrity judge in the case, the late Laurence J. Rittenband. Obsessed with gaining publicity for himself, Rittenband manipulated hearings, the plea bargain and the subsequent punishment cycle. He turned Polanski into a victim, even in the eyes of the prosecuting attorney.
The film's strength is the big picture, which is reinforced with the methodical layering of detail. Zenovich also sets up the real-life case against the background of the psychological milieu of Polanski's films, with clips from titles such as Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby.
Sometimes, that is done for comic relief. More often, these juxtapositions show how Polanski -- a genius in world cinema -- constructed his own self-portrait through a lifetime of work.
In part, it is the disturbing nature of his best films that, when combined with the lurid Manson murders and his own rape case, work against him, making him an easy target. This is especially true in a conflicted country like the United States, where liberal and libertine are confused as one.
So, as a documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired is not just about the fate of Polanski himself. It is a portrait of America.
(This film is rated 14-A)
More Movie Reviews