The most facile reading of Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy (J’Accuse; French) — set in France during the last decade of the nineteenth century — is that it’s autobiographical. It is… somewhat. The film is based on the real-life case of Captain Albert Dreyfus, who was charged with the crime of high treason, of spying for a foreign power. He was publicly shamed, stripped of his rank and uniform in an outdoor ceremony. You may recall Polanksi being stripped of his membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Like Dreyfus, Polanski is Jewish. (Pointing to the rampant anti-Semitism of the time, a character says, “A Catholic officer would have had a regular trial.”) Dreyfus was imprisoned. Polanski ended up in exile.
But J’Accuse is no pity party. For one, Dreyfus insisted he was innocent. Polanksi pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor. But more importantly, after the early portions, Dreyfus is practically written out of the story. There is just one emotional stretch, in sepia, that shows him in prison, with his legs in irons and with no one to talk to. The film is driven, instead, by Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin), who has become the army’s youngest colonel. He is assigned to the military counter-intelligence unit, a department that eavesdrops on the entire nation through steamed-open letters, torn-up drafts from garbage cans, unsent telegrams, hearsay from double agents, you name it. The film describes it best: “a tissue of gossip and conjecture”. Picquart openly admits he doesn’t like Jews, but after stumbling on some evidence, he suspects Dreyfus may have been framed. He says, “The army has been my life. I want to avoid a scandal.” But his conscience won’t allow him to see an innocent man rot away in prison.
All this is familiar territory: the conspiracy that goes all the way to the top and the principled man who fights the System, right upto the explosive courtroom drama at the end, where Emile Zola plays a part. But Polanksi’s powerful, assured direction makes the two-plus hours riveting. The Chinatown-era greatness may have gone from the filmmaker. But there is such a sense of space, of chronology, of process, of dignity, and such a sense of mood that you always sense something over and above the writing and craft and performances. You sense the directing. I’ll leave you with one example, a scene set in a church where Picquart waits for a package to be dropped off. It’s a setup from a detective thriller. But the scene is imbued with such silken grace that it becomes something transcendental, especially in that House of God.
Defending Polanski’s inclusion in the Competition section, festival director Alberto Barbera said, “[I am] convinced that we have to distinguish necessarily between the artist and the man… The history of art is full of artists who committed crimes of a different nature, nevertheless we have continued to admire their works of art. The same is true for Polanski who is in my opinion one of the last masters still active in European cinema.” Barbera is right. This kind of elegant filmmaking is becoming extinct, and it seems fitting to honour it when you see it. Watch the scene where Picquart enters his house, and finds it’s been ransacked. He looks around, and then… plays the piano. This stretch alone could be taught in directing masterclasses.
Jury president Lucrecia Martel presented a more nuanced reading of the situation. She said she does not believe in separating art and artist, but added: “A man who commits a crime of this size who is then condemned, and the victim considers herself satisfied with the compensation, is difficult for me to judge… It is difficult to define what is the right approach we have to take with people who have committed certain acts and were judged for them. I think these questions are part of the debate in our times… I will not congratulate him, but I think it is correct that his movie is here at this festival.” I guess it all depends on what you deem more important: the undeniable artistry in the film, or the undeniable guilt of the artist who made it.
The other major procedural drama in the festival came from director Raymund Ribay Gutierrez. Verdict (Filipino, English) opens with a horrific scene of domestic violence. Dante hits his wife Joy, who flees the house with her little daughter, Angel. And the runaround begins. First, it’s the office for Violence against Women and Children. Then it’s the police headquarters. Then, lawyers are needed, so it’s the prosecutor’s office. And then, witnesses are needed, so it’s neighbours’ houses. It’s just one exhausting thing after another — not just for Joy, but also Dante, who’s out to prove he is innocent — and you see what the director meant when he said, “equality in litigation leads to a more complex procedure that in turn results in impunity for the perpetrator. Orderly judicial procedures are important, but if they are the only focus, they threaten to pervert the justice they seek.”
To understand the film’s style, take the scene where Dante’s mother, who runs a small gambling den, goes to a posh lawyer. He talks about bail. She asks if he can reduce the amount. He says they will have to file a motion for that. Then, he mentions his fees. They haggle and arrive at a compromise. He then produces an agreement and asks her to sign. Now, most directors would consider the scene over and done with the moment they agreed on the fees. The actual signing of the document would be considered redundant, a waste of time. But Verdict builds on these minutiae, till we see the stacks and stacks of paperwork around each case. The film is shot with a handheld camera and there’s no background score — we are sucked into the maelstrom with Joy and Dante, with no distancing elements. The end is devastating. One part of me felt relief. Another part wondered if justice had indeed been delivered. That’s the nature of verdicts. What’s legal is sometimes very different from what’s moral.