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Sundance: Notes from EW's film critic

In the early days of the fest, Owen Gleiberman finds two documentary gems. Plus: Thoughts on Amy Redford’s ”The Guitar”

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Roman Polanski

Sundance: Notes from EW’s film critic

Even when they’re set in the middle of winter, film festivals are a bit like summer camp for grownups: all play, all the time, all of it a bit more arduous than fun should actually be (though undeniably fun nonetheless). To go to Sundance is to enter a vaguely unreal world, which is why I like to get my bearings here by attending a movie or two that’s still rooted in the real one. As it happens, the first day I got to see not one but two documentaries built around soberly sensational headline-grabbing media events from the 1970s — to me, pure real-world candy. The upshot of both films is that what we remember from those headlines barely scratches the surface of the intricate and absorbing truth.

Take the Roman Polanski scandal. We all think we know what happened when the celebrated and infamous demon-imp film director took a one-way ticket out of Los Angeles, skipping the country early in 1978 just as he was about to face sentencing for the crime of ”unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13-year-old girl. But Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Marina Zenovich’s startling and grippingly told anatomization of the case, will make you realize that you barely know the half of it. At first, I feared that the movie was going to tiptoe around the issue of Polanski’s guilt. But no, it never denies that he committed a heinous crime. Yet by showing how a media feeding frenzy shaped the story, oozing like slime into the wheels of justice, and by going deep behind the closed doors of the hearings and negotiations (presided over by a judge on such a star trip he made Lance Ito look like Solomon), the movie creates an indictment of a legal system that was corrupted and warped by the celebrity culture — that is, by the very entitlement it was trying so hard to rein in. Polanski, that troubled and charming creep-genius, emerges, if you can believe it, as both guilty as sin and a victim. It’s that ambivalence that makes Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired a documentary of rare fascination and power.

I was drawn, in a quieter way, to Stranded: I’ve come from a plane that crashed in the mountains, which goes far beyond the original news story to create a shockingly intimate portrait of the famous 1972 case of a small plane of Uruguayan soccer players who crashed in the bleak snowy mountain wasteland of the Andes. The ragged survivors who emerged, more than two months later, were able to stay alive by eating the flesh of those who had died in the crash — but the movie, which features interviews with those survivors mingled with flashes of staged enactments of their ordeal, is the opposite of sensational. It is scary, stirring, primal, humane, and at times almost incongruously religious. The men found an eerie valor in their decision to do what they had to do. Their descriptions aren’t gross, they’re deeply moving, and sitting there in those mountains, they describe feeling closer to God than perhaps they ever had before, since everything else in their lives had been stripped away.

***

Sometimes, there is more drama in the story surrounding a Sundance movie than there is in the movie itself. At the first public screening of Amy Redford’s The Guitar, the question that hovered in the air was: Did the film made it into Sundance on its own merits, or was its selection influenced by the fact that the filmmaker’s father is a famous movie star who also happens to preside over a certain highly influential, ski-town-set independent film festival? In the opening minutes, I feared the worst, as the severely beautiful British actress Saffron Burrows, playing some sort of generic New York career woman, receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer, is downsized from her job, and gets rejected by a lover — all in the same day. Good grief! Then she tries to assuage her agony by renting a giant West Village loft and maxing out her credit cards by filling it with trendy paraphernalia. Just what we need, I thought — a disease-of-the-week consumerist satire. The Guitar is goofy, all right, but as it gets rolling, and Burrows’ healing indulgence extends to taking lovers of both sexes, it also acquires a goofy hedonistic exuberance. It could indeed be called a privileged filmmaker’s fairytale, but though I wouldn’t quite say that I’d recommend The Guitar, for what it’s worth the movie didn’t feel at all out of place — or, rather, unnecessarily in place — at Sundance.