Michael Winterbottom’s Amanda Knox-inspired film, The Face of an Angel, which debuts at TIFF on Saturday, could never be anything but the bastard offspring of fact and fiction. Any journalist who covered the sensational, never-ending murder case (I did, but only sporadically), or paid close attention to its dizzying media coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, knows by now that proving clear-cut guilt or innocence in the murder of the British student Meredith Kercher is impossible. Knox and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were convicted of Kercher’s murder in 2009, acquitted two years later and reconvicted in 2014.
So The Face of an Angel could not be a whodunit thriller with CSI-style forensic flair. For legal reasons alone, I suspect, it could not put the knife, or knives, that killed Kercher in the Umbrian city of Perugia in 2007 firmly in the hands of either Knox or Sollecito, all the more so since the trials and retrials were under way when the film was in production.
The writers and directors took another route, where the murder itself retreats from the main narrative, to be replaced by another that blends fact, fiction, Dante, gratuitous sex and large dollops of the surreal in a dark, vaguely menacing city – Siena – that doubles as Perugia. That narrative focuses on a journalist who covers the trials (played by Kate Beckinsale) and a scriptwriter who becomes utterly consumed by the story (Daniel Brühl), to the point his own demons clash with the demons tormenting the Kercher case and nearly destroy him.
Does the contrivance work? I can’t say, for the simple reason that I was among a small group of journalists who were treated to a private viewing of the film on Tuesday in Rome and were instructed not to write a proper review before the TIFF opening.
The film is loosely based on the book Angel Face, a proper piece of journalism knocked off by Daily Beast writer Barbie Latza Nadeau, who covered the trials with rapt attention (disclosure: she is a friend of mine in Rome). The cast includes the exotically lovely Cara Delevingne who is thought to be a Bond girl contender in the next 007 instalment. She is not based on any real character and seems to serve as both muse to the character played by Brühl and the embodiment of the youthful, innocent beauty of his own daughter and Kercher herself.
I can comment on the experience of being a journalist watching fictionalized journalists. I felt myself squirm as their competitive aggression and overt focus on the blandly pretty Knox character, whose testimony and antics totally dominated the real-life media coverage, were put on plain and uncomfortable display; no fiction there. The Brühl character drinks, smokes, blows cocaine up his nose and parties himself to collapse, just like more than a few of the students who allegedly went to Perugia to learn Italian and instead used it as a Medieval stage for modern debauchery. The images of Siena itself were disturbingly pleasing; in the film, the city’s dark, narrow streets seemed haunted. Yes, its walls hide unpleasant stories.
The Face of an Angel may or may not receive favourable reviews at TIFF. I suspect that, even if the critics drop it off their A list, it will become required viewing for the thousands of Americans, British and Italians who have been obsessed with the case for seven years. I was not one of them, but I can see how the circus created by Knox and the media gangs who tracked her made for riveting reading. Too bad it was Knox who stole the show, not Kercher, whose heart-rending death may forever go unexplained.