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A Crime Ready for Its Close-Up

Cinema Tackles Pedophilia, in Equal Amounts of Shadow and Light

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page N01

In "Bad Education," which opened here Friday, a preteen boy named Ignacio is singing "Moon River" in Spanish while a priest strums a guitar in an idyllic riverside setting. The boy looks beatific. He sings like a dream. But the priest watches Ignacio with something darker than innocent appreciation. We don't like what we see, yet we don't completely check him off as a "bad guy." That -- preserving the priest's humanity -- was the filmmaker's intention.

"The fact that he has felt love for something forbidden doesn't mean that love is any less real or less strong," writer-director Pedro Almodovar told me. "It just happens that the object of that love is something forbidden. You are able to see in his eyes, on the one hand, desire and pleasure, but also a sense of shame."

Raul Garcia Forneiro and Ignacio Perez in Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education." (Sony Pictures Classics Via AP)

_____Desson Thomson_____
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In "The Woodsman," which opened here Jan. 7, a convicted pedophile named Walter tries to live a new life free of temptation, and it's from his perspective -- through the child molester's eyes -- that we see the story. When he follows a preteen girl into an isolated wooded area, we hope the girl will not be harmed. But we are primarily rooting for Walter (Kevin Bacon) to get a grip on his darker impulses.

Neither "Bad Education" nor "The Woodsman" condones pedophilia -- an adult's sexual obsession with children. They have brought the subject a greater legitimacy, not as a practice, but as a perfectly acceptable subject for a movie.

Obviously pedophilia is a volatile moral issue, and devastating to its victims, and many people are likely to avoid a movie that explores it. But when an artist does decide to make such a film, surely he or she shouldn't be circumspect or overly cautious. "Bad Education" and "The Woodsman" operate with an unblinking forthrightness that, up until recent years, was rarely seen. And they follow a number of films -- independently financed and produced, not surprisingly -- that have pushed pedophilia to the blatant forefront of the story, forcing audiences to deal directly with thoughts and images they'd rather not.

In 2003 the documentary "Capturing the Friedmans" took us into the troubled bosom of a respectable middle-class family living in the upscale New York suburb of Great Neck. The Friedmans filmed one another, as families do. But they filmed a lot. And when Arnold and his son Jesse were arrested on charges of sexual molestation, an entire community was horrified. And the Friedmans kept filming themselves, even in crisis. The material gave director Andrew Jarecki a wealth of footage to select from -- and one powerful movie. Most important, we saw the crisis from the family's point of view. We saw this story from the "other side." And whatever our ultimate opinions, we were brought closer to the individual faces -- rather than the blurred, composite horror -- of pedophilia.

There are other movies in which we are forced to vicariously shuffle in the shoes of the pedophile, among them a 1998 feature from Todd Solondz called "Happiness," in which Dylan Baker plays a therapist who develops a crush on, and molests, a Little League teammate of his young son. When the boy finds out and questions his father, the answer comes directly and without hesitation. It's a scene of disconcertingly troubling dimensions. In 2001's "L.I.E.," whose title refers to the Long Island Expressway, a 15-year-old named Howie (Paul Dano) is cornered by the burly Big John (Brian Cox), whose house the teen has just robbed. John is a gay man who hunts boys in public parks. And it looks as though Howie, who is still uncertain about his sexuality, will be obligated to pay for his crime in a seamy manner. But John is so charmed by Howie's artistic and intellectual side, he becomes a mentor-friend instead, inviting him to live in his home.

What's distinctive about these films is their unrelenting honesty and focus on human nature, no matter how perverse it may be in society's eyes. But ironically, when it comes to Hollywood's treatment of pedophilia, there's a sort of evasiveness about depravity.

The 1999 hit "American Beauty" from DreamWorks was well received by audiences and won five Oscars for what was essentially a tale about pedophilia. Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey's character, lusts desperately (remember the rose petals?) for the classmate of his teenage daughter. We are being asked to relish the thought of that fresh young woman ourselves. And in the 2002 Miramax release "Tadpole," a 15-year-old boy (Aaron Stanford) is passionately attracted to his father's second wife (Sigourney Weaver), a middle-aged woman named Eve. Then, of course, there is "Lolita," Hollywood's ultimate naughty movie about this type of relationship. In the 1962 original and the 1997 remake, an older man marries a woman to get to her teenage daughter. In all these films, we are tacitly asked to consider positively the idea of adult-teen relations.

Then there's the way Hollywood movies have routinely used pedophilia as a sort of instant formula, a passing backstory for why characters are haunted or do the terrible things they do. The central pain at the heart of "The Prince of Tides," the 1991 film based on the Pat Conroy novel, turns on the unspeakable sexual abuse suffered by Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) during his childhood. This revelation is saved for the late stages of the story and it's supposed to function as a quick allegory for Tom's misery. "Mystic River" (2003) is built around an incident of child-apprehension and rape that haunts three characters into their adulthood and indirectly leads to murder. And in last year's "Butterfly Effect," a character goes back in time to change the fate of a child who was sexually abused.

In these and other studio films, sexual abuse is mentioned verbally or shown in eerie, haunting flashback: a child's terrified expression, a murky adult closing the door between us and them, an ominous fade to black. By avoiding direct dealings with pedophilia and child abuse, Hollywood is, in effect, Pontius Pilating. It's forcing the audience to imagine the worst instead of tackling the thorny issue itself. This gets their movies an R or sometimes PG-13 rating while films like "L.I.E." and "Bad Education" receive NC-17's.

But increasingly, the glass wall of squeamish sanctimony that keeps "us" apart from "them" is being shattered. We are no longer asked to merely demonize pedophilia but at least get a sense of the humanity behind it. No more black-hat them, white-hat us.

There has been evidence, for instance, to suggest that Jesse Friedman (of "Capturing the Friedmans") is an innocent who was intimidated into a false confession (and imprisoned for 13 years) by overzealous police and societal hysteria. Friedman's mission to get his conviction overturned is the regular subject of his Web site, freejesse.net. He lives among us. He is human. And he wants back in.

Troubling subjects, especially matters of sexuality, used to be the exclusive domain of European filmmakers. The French, the Italians, the Brits and the Germans -- they were the ones to tell us about the Great Unmentionables. But when Steven Soderbergh's 1989 "Sex, Lies and Videotape" took the Golden Palm at Cannes, it also seized the baton of artistic expression and brought it to these shores.

Since then, the independent movement -- with the Sundance Film Festival as its seedbed -- has become a moral hothouse for the screen. And it's successes have influenced the Hollywood studios, forever controlled by conglomerates, bean counters and bottom lines, to follow suit through such studio-financed indie boutiques as Miramax, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Sony Pictures Classics. As always, we can look for the small movies to tackle the big issues, while the bigger movies play it safe and settle for the smallest. But thanks to American-style independence, there is always hope of the movies catching up with the realities of everyday life, instead of escaping from it.

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