Outside traditions of storytelling media, many of the Zeitgeists capturing stories of our time have come from court rooms of the world. With the Oscar Pistorius case and abuse of civil liberties by now-defunct press outlets to name but two. One which dwarfed those in stature was the long-running Meredith Kercher murder case, forming the foundation of Michael Winterbottom’s film – The Face of an Angel, out now on Soda Pictures DVD. Changing names to avoid offence to those involved and dedicated to the memory of the murdered party, Winterbottom and screenwriter Paul Viragh have adapted Barbie Latza Nadeau’s book “Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox”, turning it into an experimental and reactionary project that one may not anticipate.
Face of an Angel stars Daniel Brühl as filmmaker Thomas, (sporting a resounding English accent) a young director hired to make a true-crime thriller as a cynical cash-grab at the murder case that has set the press and public aquiver. In the historic Italian city of Siena, Thomas has strong connections with the local press and the relevant citizenry as he struggles to come to terms with what the story of the film should be. Instead of making a quickly turned around film, Bruhl’s Thomas talks of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and ideas of grand cinema. Pressure mounts from all sides and all Thomas wants is to make the best film possible and get back to his young daughter whom he shares brief Skype conversations with.
From that nucleus, Face of an Angel habitually changes the goalposts more akin to a psychological horror than any true-crime piece. A psychological horror keyed into the simple question: how do you write a story for something that doesn’t have either an ending or a complete picture to comprehend? Winterbottom’s meta-labyrinth sees the narrative follow a nonlinear approach that includes a few surreal dream sequences that wouldn’t be out-of-place in Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The weight of these distinct plot threads is used as a means to replicate the confusion and pressure placed upon Thomas and his mind. Through this, the Face of an Angel becomes a convoluted mess as shorthand for Thomas’ predicament of finding the central thread in this maelstrom of press attention, controversy and filmmaking credibility. To make matters yet more complicated, the film we viewers are watching is the very same one that Bruhl’s character is struggling with. As a film about the fundamentals of writer’s block: ideas develop, warp and charge which in turn sees Winterbottom’s [the] Face of an Angel’s persona frequently modify itself. The clever truth of this sees a film that answers and develops past criticisms viewer will have of it.
Act 1, 2 and 3 play incredibly different from each other. The first act sees Thomas try to stand firm against the moral ambivalence of the press he has surrounded himself with whilst retaining his credibility. After burning his bridges with the European press, Thomas forges a path for himself as he attempts to employ his creative faculties, which sees him associate with knowledgeable and connected local Edoardo (Valerio Mastandrea). Edoardo who Thomas, and his drug-fuelled paranoia, paints as a dangerous unpredictable element as part of his psychological thriller take on the case.
The only connection he has with his original course, at this juncture, is Simone (a parallel for the source text’s Barbie Latza Nadeau, played by Kate Beckinsale) who he has taken to sleeping with. Drawing blanks and causing problem through option A & B; he plumps for option C – a love story. Doomed as the other options/acts it may be, he elopes with Melanie (Cara Delevigne), a beautiful gap-year bartender he met in Siena.
Through it all Thomas is a cypher for the central question the film poses; nonetheless he is an interesting lead buoyed by a reliable performance by underappreciated leading man Daniel Brühl. Likewise Delevigne is sure to find herself playing down to earth love interests in films for years to come, as the evidence displayed here suggests she has a natural talent few others migrating from the world of fashion possess. Furthermore the film is a fascinating question for those interested in the minutiae of current events and documentary, evolving and forever reacting into a truly fascinating film. The ultimate issue Winterbottom’s feature is faced with is one of interest, the face of an angel is never more than interesting as an idea. It never uses the promise of any interpretation to turn the film into anything more, which in itself could be intentional decision, calling back to the opening question. Just how do you make a film when the core story is neither complete nor fully understood?
THE FACE OF AN ANGEL IS OUT NOW ON SODA PICTURES DVD