Officer and Spy: Polanski’s Controversial Movie, Starring Oscar Winner

An Officer and a Spy, the latest feature from the Oscar-winning and polemical director Roman Polanski premiered in competition at the 2019 Venice Film Fest on Friday.

The filmmaker, who’s 86,  is still a fugitive from U.S. justice after he fled the country in 1977 amid a high-profile sexual assault case. He is unable to travel outside his home nation of France without risking arrest.

Venice’s decision to screen Polanski’s new film has been controversial. The festival has come under fire from those who see the move as celebrating a director who was arrested decades ago on suspicions of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. Polanski pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of unlawful sex with a minor but fled the U.S. before final sentencing.

Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, the president of this year’s Venice Film Fest jury, has said she did not want to be seen to “celebrate” Polanski, though she insisted she would judge his film on its own merits.

Claiming bias, the producers of An Officer and a Spy initially threatened to pull the movie before its world premiere.

The Italian producer, Luca Barbareschi, who attended the press conference along with the film’s stars Jean Dujardin, Louis Garrel, Mathieu Amalric, and Emmanuelle Seigner, immediately moved to shut down any discussion of the Polanski affair.

“This is not a moral trial, it is a marvelous festival,” said Barbareschi, adding he and the cast would not be taking any questions not connected directly to the film. He concluded by thanking everyone connected to the movie, concluding by thanking god “for allowing me to give to the public this story, which is of incredible topical importance.”

An Officer and a Spy is based on the infamous anti-Semitic Dreyfus affair from the 19th century, in which Jewish French military officer Alfred Dreyfus, in 1895, was falsely accused of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The film centers on Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin), a French officer and head of army intelligence, who discovers the evidence that Dreyfus was framed. Picquart risks his career and his life, struggling for a decade to expose the truth and free the wrongly convicted Dreyfus from the dreaded Devil’s Island prison.

Garrel stars as Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Amalric, Olivier Gourmet and Seigner, Polanski’s wife, co-star.

Polanski’s film is adapted from the 2013 book of the same name by Robert Harris, who co-wrote the script. Harris previously collaborated with Polanski’s on the director’s 2010 film The Ghost Writer.

An Officer and a Spy was well received at the press screening Friday morning. The film, half historical thriller, half courtroom drama, got a rousing round of applause from the audience of critics and journalists. How it will go over with the Venice jury, and with theatrical audiences, might however have as much to do with attitudes toward Polanski as toward his film.