By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - Roman Polanski's new film "An Officer and a Spy", a portrayal of the notorious Dreyfus Affair in 19th-century France, premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Friday to renewed controversy over the director, given his conviction for a sex crime.
Polanski has sought to compare his own situation with that of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in the French army who in 1894 was convicted of treason and shipped to the Devil's Island penal colony off South America's Atlantic coast.
Dreyfus' conviction was criticised as being motivated by anti-Semitism and the case deeply split France. He was eventually exonerated.
Polanski, who fled the United States after pleading guilty in 1977 to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles, said in production notes he was "familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film, and that has clearly inspired me."
The French-Polish director did not attend the Venice festival, where the French-language film is one of 21 in competition for the Golden Lion prize. It was presented by cast members, including Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner, and producers.
Festival organisers have faced criticism for including it in the programme but have defended the move, saying it is the film and not the man being judged.
At the start of a news conference, where Seigner, actors Jean Dujardin and Louis Garrel were applauded on arrival, producer Luca Barbareschi said only questions about the movie would be answered.
"This is not a moral tribunal," he said. "The past is in the past, we need to focus on the present. The film must speak for itself, the jury must judge and the public, if they want, can applaud."
Polanski fled the United States in 1978 for fear a deal for leniency with prosecutors would be overruled and he would get a lengthy prison term. Now aged 86, he lives in Europe.
His history came under renewed scrutiny as the #MeToo movement against sexual abuse and harassment grew in the wake of allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2017.
Last year, he was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In "An Officer and a Spy", Oscar winner Dujardin plays Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, who in 1896 found evidence the traitor was someone else and not Dreyfus. He reported this to his superiors, who declined to take the matter further.
"I approached this film with hindsight, modesty and knowing that history is the star of the film," Dujardin said.
In the production notes, French writer Pascal Bruckner asks Polanski about his own "persecution," which he says began when his actress wife Sharon Tate was murdered in 1969 by followers of cult leader Charles Manson.
"Most of the people who harass me do not know me and know nothing about the case," Polanski says.
"All this still haunts me today. Anything and everything. It is like a snowball, each season adds another layer. Absurd stories by women I have never seen before in my life who accuse me of things which supposedly happened more than half a century ago."
At an early morning screening of the film, based on the book by Robert Harris, audiences cheerfully applauded once the credits rolled up.
"The film itself is a solid decent movie and it might be accepted that way," Scott Roxborough, European bureau chief for The Hollywood Reporter, said.
"But I think because of all the controversy surrounding Polanski, it's going to be very difficult for people to separate the two."
Critics were divided and many disputed the parallels Polanski cited in his production notes.
The Guardian described the film as "a solid, well-crafted piece of professional carpentry" while IndieWire called it a "dull procedural drama."
"It's (a) meticulous production, made with robust confidence by the 86-year-old director, and I wish I could say it was Polanski working at peak form," Variety's Owen Gleiberman wrote.
"But it's a film that tells you things more than it gets you to feel them."
(Reporting By Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Richard Chang)