ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED

AND DESIRED. 9 tonight, HBO.

YOU WOULDN'T expect director Roman Polanski to find much understanding among members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, most of whom have probably never seen his movies.

Still, both consider themselves to have been persecuted by a society that doesn't necessarily agree that girls of, say, 13 are old enough to be having sex.

We'll say 13 because that, of course, was how old the drugged girl in the notorious Polanski rape case was in 1977 when the then-44-year-old director of "Rosemary's Baby" had sex with her in actor Jack Nicholson's house, a case that's revisited tonight in the HBO documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired."

A 2008 Sundance Film Festival winner (for documentary editing), Marina Zenovich's film isn't likely to change many viewers' minds about the event itself.

Girls of 13 may show up on hospital maternity wards all the time, may be dressed provocatively and used to sell almost anything that can be bought in our not-so puritanical culture, but for many, there's a stigma attached to older men who bed very young girls that three decades hasn't erased.

For others, it's always been situational, and it's not just the French who respond with a Gallic shrug to the mistake that's kept Polanski, who won an Oscar for "The Pianist" in 2002, a celebrated fugitive all these years.

Fortunately, Zenovich doesn't seem as interested in changing minds as in fleshing out the sometimes hazy details, and in "Wanted and Desired" she's done just that, tracking down and interviewing many of the principals in the Polanski case - though not the director himself, who's represented in interviews from the past - and presenting a far sharper picture of what happened after the girl's mother called the police than was widely available up to now.

Thirty years and too many celebrity circuses later, the events that led up to Polanski's flight from the United States seem almost routine, from the European reporters who flew in and exposed details about the victim, including her name, that U.S. newspapers couldn't print to the judge who treated the case like a movie in which he was director and star.

From a distance, the 1969 murder of Polanski's pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of Charles Manson's followers, seems to be part of the same story, and it's clear from "Wanted and Desired" that Polanski thinks so, too, at least in terms of his relationships with the press, which had the temerity to question whether he might have been involved in Tate's death.

Given that history, it's a little unsettling to see how relaxed Polanski appeared in the January 1984 interview with Clive James on Britain's Channel 4 that opens the film.

"When the newspapers and the magazines and the books talk about little girls, is there anything in it?" James asks.

"Well, I like young women, let's put it this way. I think most of men do, actually," Polanski replies.

"But the question turns on how young, doesn't it?"

"Well, yes, here you come to the concrete case for which I have been behind bars, and that's what you want to talk about. But what exactly would you like me to tell you?"

And then the elfin Polanski smiles, a smile that makes it hard not to wonder if he's ever completely understood what all the fuss was about.

In "Wanted and Desired," he's certainly better off leaving the answers to others. *

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