At the halfway point of Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel, Thomas Lang, a film director in the process of adapting a book about a high-profile murder case, is sitting at lunch with his collaborators on the project. The murder case involves Jessica Fuller, an American student accused of killing her study-abroad roommate in Italy, which the viewer will recognize as a story based on the real-life Amanda Knox case, which made headlines in 2007. When prompted to speak about his angle for the story, Thomas says: “The story is that there’s no such thing as real truth or justice. It’s just a popularity contest.”
“But that’s not a film,” his colleague counters. She wants an emotional connection to the two girls and their backstories – she wants violence, mystery, resolution.
“I think it can be,” Thomas replies.
Such is the bold argument presented by Winterbottom for the viewer to grapple with throughout the course of The Face of an Angel: can a film about real-life events remain faithful to the truth? And, more importantly, can faithfulness to the truth make for a good film?
These are ambitious questions, but they contain a logical fallacy: that the film Winterbottom is making is more “true” than the traditional “whodunit” murder mystery. Winterbottom’s Thomas (Daniel Brühl), a clear stand-in for the director himself, is self-importantly detached from the outcome of the murder trial, the contradicting evidence, the accounts of the girls’ characters – bugger it all, he says, we’ll never know the capital-T, as-it-happened Truth. And so instead of an inquisitive, tension-fraught look at the ripe-for-adapting Amanda Knox case, we get a meandering and cloyingly self-referential film about a director’s mid-life crisis – a wife who cheated, a daughter he misses, a script he’s barely started.
This is all very well and good, but the film’s pretension is that this focus on a director’s low-key malaise is more “true” than a film about a girl who was murdered while on study abroad. Of course, it’s not “more true.” What Winterbottom has presented is definitively a fiction – a small-scale, rather listless story. But here’s where the frustration comes in – it’s absolutely not the one that viewers in the theater will pay fifteen dollars to see.
I wanted to get to know Elizabeth (Sai Bennett), the hapless, beautiful victim. I wanted to know how she interacted with her friends and her parents and if she was excited to be in Europe for the first time. I wanted to know if she liked her roommate, Jessica (Genevieve Gaunt) – if she admired her or resented her for her easy manner with boys. I wanted to know: did they stay up talking late at night? Did they get drunk together? I was dying to know: was it Jessica who killed Elizabeth? And if not, who?
The Face of an Angel skirts these pressing questions. It dangles them before your eyes as Thomas starts to write the movie we’re aching to see: Elizabeth on the train, quiet and thoughtful, arriving at the apartment before Jessica. But then Thomas scraps this draft, and another, and another. Instead, we’re pulled into his personal life – which would be fine, if his personal life held as much allure as the life of the murdered American girl and her roommate, a shocking, word-reknown intrigue.
It doesn’t. Thomas gets involved with Simone, played by a Kate Beckinsale with horrible hair extensions, a hardnosed journalist who wrote about the case. Despite the utter lack of chemistry between the two, they have sex, twice, as is shown by two cringe-worthy flashbacks. Also on Thomas’s radar is Melanie, a charming, attractive young student played by “it” girl Cara Delevigne in her onscreen debut. She’s his tour guide around the city of Siena, taking him through its labyrinthine back alleys to house parties, where she opens beer bottles with her teeth. The rapport between she and Thomas is much more believable here: he’s an older, famous movie director and she’s a reckless 21-year-old in a foreign city. We get the feeling that something is bound to happen between these two, although we wouldn’t necessarily like it if it did.
Visually, the film is artfully presented. The colors of The Face of an Angel are cool blues, whites, and greens, like the color of the sea meeting the horizon on an overcast day. Something about the lighting and color makes me think of the film as one that could only have been made in 2015, with all our modern advances in the aesthetic technologies.
The inclusion of repeated allusions, and even spoken references, to Dante’s “Inferno” similarly adds a layer of appeal. Thomas’s daughter’s name is Beatrice, which was the name of Dante’s beloved who appears to him as an angel from heaven as he descends into Hell. Hell, ostensibly, for Thomas, is the process of writing a script for the wrong movie, the movie that bends the truth and the one that he doesn’t want to make (in this “meta” aspect, Winterbottom’s film recalls Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation”). He takes drugs to focus, has nightmarish visions. There are knives, both fake and real, both bloody and clean. The sinister Edoardo (Valerio Mastandrea), a friend of Simone’s who claims to know the truth about the murder, taunts Thomas and makes him believe he’s going insane. A figurative Devil for our wayward Dante, beckoning him into the deep.
Near the end of the film, Melanie gives Thomas a book of Dante’s love sonnets about Beatrice. “Maybe you could make your film a love story,” she suggests, citing that there’s enough death and killing in the world. But what we get is neither death nor love. We get a drawn-out depiction of professional and personal stagnancy.
Most don’t realize that Dante’s Hell was more frozen-over than burning hot. It’s appropriate, for if this film were brought to judgment, its feigned premise – that bait-and-switch of the Amanda Knox case – would confine it to that very still, very cold place, where the greatest sin of all is that of treason against the viewer – who in the world of cinema, I’d say, is God.