The Face of an Angel

Anatomy of a murder


October 04, 2015 18:10 EDT

In a climate of media sensationalism, Michael Winterbottom explores the murder of Meredith Kercher on the big screen.

In November 2007, Meredith Kercher, a student at Leeds University on a study abroad program, was viciously murdered in Perugia, Italy.

Amanda Knox, a University of Washington student who was also studying abroad, and an Italian by the name of Raffaelo Sollecito were both charged, sentenced, acquitted, retried, convicted and then definitively exonerated in March 2015. In a separate (fast-track) trial, Rudy Guede, an Ivory Coast national, was found guilty of the Kercher murder and is currently serving an 18-year sentence. But there remain doubts about his role in the killing. In many ways, Kercher’s death is still a mystery.

The news story captured the imagination of the public across the world, as journalists and news outlets were transfixed by the murder and the trial. Viewers and readers were subjected to countless accounts of the salacious details of the killing, the biographies of the personalities involved and the seemingly ruthless nature of the act itself.

Most of the attention concentrated on Knox, who was regarded as beautiful and sexy but also a mysterious killer who had a violent dark side. Writers and journalists presented a story that converged on Knox’s personality, rather than the details of the case, or indeed the legal proceedings of the Italian justice system.

In a climate of media sensationalism and its endless dependence on violence and cruelty, audiences across the globe were gripped as the machinations of the trial and the retrial unfolded. Throughout the process, Kercher was rendered invisible, and the wicked nature of her death almost disregarded.

The Screen

It is with this in mind that acclaimed British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom brings to the screen The Face of an Angel. It is a fictionalized account of the characters and events associated with the real-life murder of Meredith Kercher.

Set in Siena, rather than Perugia, the actual names of individuals implicated in the murder are changed, but the story, as it were, remains the same. The film centers on the character of Thomas, who is a filmmaker tasked with the challenge of telling the story about the story. His producers want him to focus on the murder and the trial, but Thomas, played by Daniel Brühl, is undergoing his own professional and personal crises.

In doing some research in Italy for his film, Thomas is struck by the way the story of the murder is shaped by journalists and television news. He decries how accounts are obsessed with the apparent sordid details of jealousies, rage, crimes of passion and young libidos students who like to party. Sex, drugs and their supposed lewd antics are presented as the more interesting side of the story.

Most of the attention concentrated on Knox, who was regarded as beautiful and sexy but also a mysterious killer who had a violent dark side. Writers and journalists presented a story that converged on Knox’s personality, rather than the details of the case…

In one scene, Thomas angrily lashes out against journalists who he sees as having the sole aim of sexing-up the story. Thomas is tangled up with his own internal conflicts regarding his broken marriage and his flailing career as a filmmaker, but he is adamant that he is going to tell an honest account. He wants to write a film that is not about death, murder or the trial, but about love and life. He wants to tell a story that goes beyond a burning fascination with death—to one of devotion, rebirth and redemption. There is no truth or justice, he says, because we cannot know what we do not know.

Beautifully directed, Winterbottom’s touch of cinematographic class is evident throughout. The locations are homage to classical Italy. And the performances of the lead players—Daniel Brühl as Thomas and Kate Beckinsale who plays the character of Simone Ford, an expat American journalist operating out of Italy—are commendable.

However, the problem is that the film gets trapped inside a loop, where the way out is never quite found, and the viewer is left with an empty feeling as the credits roll.

In the final scenes, the fictionalized character playing the real-life Kercher looks straight into the camera as the words of Dante are spoken by her father, reading a eulogy at his daughter’s funeral. Winterbottom takes an amiable approach to concentrate the viewer not on death, but on life, and rightly so.

But in the process of taking the audience through the journey, the focus on existential crises facing Thomas takes over a potentially more penetrative contribution on the fallibility of media and the proclivity of the human beings to be distracted by sex and violence. The viewer is taken through the downward spiral of a man teetering on the edge of sanity. The story about the story, which started off with a powerful premise in relation to deconstructing media and its insatiable appetite for sex and murder, is lost in the process.

The film is unnecessarily convoluted. It is disoriented about its own reflexivity to such an extent that it loses its ability to engage the audience to the end. The script about a director struggling to write the script about the story of the story had only one place to go in the end, which was the emphasis on the lead character’s own internal inferno. As such, it is a missed opportunity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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