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We all know director Roman Polanski as that guy whose wife was murdered by the Manson Family, a brilliant artist with films such as Chinatown, and a statutory rapist who fled the country and never returned. Amidst the controversial win of Best Director for The Pianist in 2002, I finally discovered the hoopla of it all; how he was given permission from a 13 year old’s mother to take photographs and how she knew what kind of life he lived yet did what she could to possibly continue her own career, if not create one for her daughter. I learned about the quaalude, the incident having occurred at Jack Nicholson’s home, the recent forgiveness from the victim to her “assailant”, and so on, but what I never realized was the circus of a trial that actually took place. Marina Zenovich does her very best to expose the injustice done by our judicial system, of one man’s desire for fame and media attention at the detriment to giving a fair trial in Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. It is very easy to take what is shown here as fact, especially since we are given interviews from the lawyers involved, but a documentary is still one person’s vision on a subject. Without being able to hear Judge Rittenband’s account—he unfortunately passed away in 1993—Zenovich attempts to keep it all impartial and to the facts at hand and accessible.

She has culled together a rich assortment of footage from Polanski’s movies and life, splicing it all into a coherent narrative, displaying what she found and never really explaining her own feelings. You can infer from what she has chosen to include on how she may lean on the subject, but that opinion isn’t the impetus behind the project. I believe she really wanted to expose the truth and help people like myself, someone who knew a very cursory amount of information yet absolutely intrigued to get the full tale, have the facts presented so as to allow viewers to come to their own conclusions. One could view this film as the trial Polanski never got, a seemingly fair one displaying the views of arresting officers as well as lawyers on both sides, representing the defense, the state, and the victim. We as the audience become the jury, manifesting our own ideas and assimilating the evidence for our own outlook and image of the director. Something important to be aware of, though, is that despite what you may think about the man himself, you cannot deny the effectiveness and quality of art that spans most of his career. So, at the end, whether he is a misunderstood genius or a pedophile making great art, try not to infer on his films the controversy of his life. The dark themes and subject matter existed from day one. This European may not have thought what he did was wrong, he may not have realized whether an adolescent consented or not, it still isn’t right. However, that is for judgment on his life and not his work.

I believe Zenovich shares the same feelings because her use of film footage never tries to give underlying meaning or bridge together fact and fiction to show what might have been going through the artist’s mind. When clips from his work are onscreen, they are to illustrate emotion and enhance the mood; they are not there to explain motivations. She also does a good job attempting to humanize Polanski, something necessary to give him a fair and balanced argument. Being that many people consider him to be a monster, that outlook helps us create an understanding of his life and morals—we shouldn’t impose our own ideals onto him, everyone is unique and different. We need to have an idea of the person before we can judge if what happened deserved heavier punishment.

But then that is what’s truly on trial here, the severity of retribution on a criminal. Once you hear the interviews of each lawyer—they both corroborate each other’s testimony in exposing the unjust judge in control—you will understand how much more important this case is than the sentencing of Polanski. The backroom deals that went on, the unkept promises and dissolved sense of trust, the unanimous call for probation by all parties in lieu of state prison time, and the absolute cooperation of Polanski himself raise some interesting questions about how far it has all gone. This case was to be concluded after a year of work, with deals accepted and honored, prices paid, and lives eventually ready to go on. Yet one man, Judge Rittenband, couldn’t help but be star-struck at his own notoriety. The outcries of the public, the media’s image that this supposed “hammer” of the justice system has gone soft on a celebrity, the disintegration of his reputation…it all led to the man becoming a director himself. He began to script his own courtroom and coach the lawyers into following the plan, trying to keep it all ok for everyone. Once his games crossed the line of what is legal and what is not, the lawyers finally woke up to the charade and decided to take a stand against what proved to be a very corrupt system at a level where it cannot be tolerated.

I don’t know if my interpretation of it all has changed post-viewing, but it has been enhanced and educated. I never would have known that Polanski actually spent time in Chino for half of a 90-day psychiatric testing. Not to mention the fact that he did so after being told he’d have a year to finish work on a film. He could have fled right then, but instead he came back to the US and served his time as the judge asked him to. It was only when promises were broke and the system exposed as unjust that he decided on exile. Neither lawyer can blame him on the decision, and even though a trial upon his return would lead to no more jailtime—what incentive does he have? The public has already vilified him and he doesn’t need Hollywood money to continue his work, so there is no need for a homecoming. Was what he did wrong? Absolutely. Did he serve a just amount of retribution for that fact? Perhaps. The victim has forgiven him, he was played with for a year in the courtroom, served 42 days in jail, and has been practically living in Europe off of an indirect deportation. Does that make it even? I guess that is for him and God to decide. I just hope that now that the story is out there for people to hear, they not let their personal feelings stop them from watching some of cinema’s finest work.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired 8/10

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photography:
[1] Roman Polanski at a court appearance in Los Angeles in 1977. Soon after, he fled the country and has never returned.
[2] GUILTY Director Roman Polanski appears at his 1978 rape trial, as seen in Marina Zenovic’s HBO documentary. (Los Angeles Times Collection, UCLA Library Department of Special Collections/HBO)

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