Roman Polanski is 86 today, but a ghost still haunts him, the ghost of a rape he committed in the 1970s America. He admitted to the charge in court and was awaiting sentencing when he fled the country. He has since then remained a fugitive running and hiding from the law.
The girl in question, who was just 13 at the time of the incident, has forgiven Polanski and has pleaded that the master Polish moviemaker must not be hounded any longer. But the law is not so forgiving, and he knows that if steps on American territory he would be arrested and jailed – spending his last days behind bars.
Polanski, who lost his family as a child to the holocaust, and young pregnant wife to the devilish Manson Family in 1969 – a day that America thought was the end of the golden age of Hollywood – has never stopped making great cinema. His 2003 film The Pianist, a Holocaust story, won the Oscar, though last year, he was expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts when the rape controversy re-surfaced in the face of the #MeToo movement.
This year, Polanski is back on the Lido, his An Officer and a Spy is part of the Venice Film Festival Competition with 21 titles. It is a riveting work but raked up controversy till the end. There were protests against including the movie. But Festival Director Alberto Barbera said he was not going to judge the man, but only his creative efforts. "When you go to see a painting by Caravaggio, you are seeing a work by an assassin who, after killing a man, had to escape to Palermo. It's ridiculous. If you can't make a distinction between the culpability of a person and that person's value as an artist, you aren't going to get anywhere”.
Polanski's film details the Dreyfus affair, the infamous late 1800 scandal. The French Jewish Army Captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was accused of spying for Germany, convicted in an awfully biased trial and sentenced to life imprisonment in the notorious Devil's Island. He was eventually exonerated in trials which laid bare anti-semitism in the French army and government.
Significantly, Polanski's period piece comes at a time when the world finds itself polarised. There is a strong anti-jewish sentiment emerging in Europe, and elsewhere in places like India, there is a feeling of hostility between communities.
But as An Officer and a Spy tells us that it is possible to overcome such biases with rational thinking and a sense of 'live and let live.'
One only hopes that works like Polanski's latest outing come to India. They need to be seen, and lessons learnt from them. In the movie, although French Army officer Alfred Dreyfus is hated for being a Jew, his boss, Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picquart, saves him from the stigma of a being called a spy and cast away for life. Picquart, a Christian, personally dislikes Jews, but his sense of fair-play and duty push him to find the real culprit and get Dreyfus off the hook.
A brilliant work that teaches us fellow feeling and what humanity is all about.
(Author, commentator, and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran has been covering the Venice Film Festival for over 18 years.)