'The Face of an Angel': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Revolution Films
Michael Winterbottom's exploration into the nature of truthful filmmaking and storytelling makes for a rich, poetic film that is not simple to decipher

A filmmaker investigates the murder of British student Meredith Kercher in a film starring Daniel Bruhl, Kate Beckinsale and Cara Delevingne

The worldwide interest in the case of Meredith Kercher, the English student murdered in 2007 while on a study year in Italy, turned into a media circus of sickening proportions, while the victim herself was largely forgotten, opines director Michael Winterbottom in The Face of an Angel. Instead of making the kind of  juicy true-crime reenactment that would have been a surefire draw, he opts in true Winterbottom fashion to search for a deeper meaning and for something closer to truth. So he forgoes all but a cursory account of Meredith’s murder and her suspected killers (who were first convicted and then declared innocent on appeal), preferring to describe the aftermath of the murder, the media frenzy, and the girl whose young life was truncated. Everything is seen through the eyes of a sensitive filmmaker obsessed with Dante, who has been commissioned to make the commercial film that Winterbottom won’t make.

It’s hard to even describe this will-o’-the-wisp film, and audiences are likely to feel alternately intrigued and frustrated as they struggle to puzzle it out. A bankable name cast — Daniel Bruhl, Kate Beckinsale and Cara Delevingne — should help find viewers to a certain extent, but this is self-reflexive cinema and high art country, where only the intrepid dare. More festival exposure is sure to follow its bow in Toronto, in any case.

The film is dedicated "to the memory of Meredith Kercher, 1985-2007," and this is the only direct reference to the real people in the case (the suspects Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito and Rudy Guede are referred to by different names.) Winterbottom and screenwriter Paul Viragh reference the first book that came out on the events in Perugia, written by American expat journalist Barbie Latza Nadeau, who becomes the character Simone Ford (Beckinsale) in the film. In addition, the story is relocated to Siena, which is another way to distance the film from its real-life models.

The hero of the tale and Winterbottom's fictional alter ego is Thomas Lang (Bruhl), a director who has been commissioned by British TV to shoot a film on the hot subject. He will disappoint them. When he gets to Italy to research the project, he realizes that the evidence is so contradictory the murder can never be solved, and in any case, a single truth doesn’t exist. This realization inevitably lead to anguished wheel-spinning and time-wasting for the director, who is going through a domestic crisis that involves his young daughter. In the concluding scenes, he realizes that the film he wants to make is not about murder and death, but love and life.

The action can be roughly divided into three parts following Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the early scenes Thomas arrives in Italy and meets the lovely journalist Simone, who like Dante’s Beatrice becomes his guide through Hell. She introduces him to the international reporters hanging around Siena hunting for scandal, and to an ambiguous local man (Valerio Mastrandrea) who frightens Thomas with his claims to know a lot about the murder.

In the central part, Purgatory, he meets the pretty student, part-time waitress and party girl Melanie, played like an overly exuberant teenager by Delevingne. Finally, as the film progresses to Heaven, Thomas identifies her with the purity of the dead girl. Anybody confused?

There are many good things in the swiftly moving narrative, filmed with a handheld camera to give a documentary look. Wandering through the narrow medieval streets of the city, the hero is assailed by ghostly voices and monsters in moments of coked-up paranoia. Harry Escott's score heightens the poetic-exotic atmosphere of Hubert Taczanowski's lensing, particularly in the final scenes, which read more like a tone poem than narrative.

Production companies: BBC Films, Multitrade/Ypsilon Films, Lipsync Productions
Cast: Daniel Bruhl, Kate Beckinsale, Valerio Mastrandrea, Cara Delevingne, Ava Acres, Genevieve Gaunt, Sai Bennett, Ranieri Menicori, Andrea Tidona, Peter Sullivan
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenwriter: Paul Viragh; based on a book by Barbie Latza Nadeau
Producer: Melissa Parmenter
Executive producers: Christine langan, Ed Wethered, Eric Anidjar, Leon Benarroch, Roberto Mitrani, Norman Merry, Anthony Jabre, Reza Safinia, Susana Hornil

Director of photography: Hubert Taczanowski
Production designer: Carly Reddin
Costume designer: Daniela Ciancio
Editor: Marc Richardson
Music: Harry Escott
Sales: WestEnd Films

No MPAA rating, 105 minutes