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An interpretation of The Face of an Angel by Michael Winterbottom

Henry Holiday – Dante and Beatrice – Google Art Project

The movie inspired by the Kercher case and directed by the talented, if sometimes controversial, British director has not been much appreciated, both by general audiences and by critics.

Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 37% rating and quotes the critics consensus as:

“The Face of an Angel finds director Michael Winterbottom in pursuit of ideas that remain frustratingly diffuse and agonizingly out of his grasp.”

It is the opinion of this writer that those for whom Winterbottom’s ideas are out of their grasp are mainly his critics and surely the greater part of the general public.

As an Italian who came in contact with Dante’s work in a critical phase of his mental and emotional growth, when watching this movie I soon realized that it makes deep use of Dantesque symbology and with that came the reckoning that the movie has to be read and interpreted and not just watched.

Why do people not appreciate it?

Basically because they do not understand it.

The movie, both in its script and in its images, was written using a sort of Dantesque cryptography and so to be understood it has to be watched through a Dantesque lens.

The two works of Dante explicitly referred to by Winterbottom are the Vita Nuova (an early but seminal work in Dante’s production) and the Divine Comedy, its absolute masterpiece.

Any work of Dante cannot be read just as a contemporary bestseller would, but the Divine Comedy is particularly complex and requires four levels of reading and understanding: literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical (also referred to as “soprassenso”, or “hypermeaning”).

The movie’s script has not been written by Dante himself, but it is so deeply imbued with Dantesque elements and symbology, that it too has too be “read” at multiple levels.

In particular, it has a “literal” level, which is most probably the only one most of the general public and, in my opinion, also most of the critics, were able to read.

There is then an allegorical level, where most of the meaning of the movie resides, and finally a moral-anagogical level which, as in the Divine Comedy, is the most obscure one.

The literal level

The literal level consists in the Kercher/Knox case and its surroundings.

For those who have been interested in it (and who constitute a fair share of the movie’s audience) it is very easy to recognize the slightly disguised characters.

Elisabeth Pryce is Meredith Kercher

Jessica Fuller is Amanda Knox

Carlo Elias is Raffaele Sollecito

Simone Ford is Barbie Nadeau

Edoardo is Frank Sfarzo

Joseph is Rudi Guede

Cedric is Patrick Lumumba

and so on with other characters, including the wonderful Tuscan town of Siena taking the place of the Umbrian Perugia.

Thomas, the troubled director trying to make a movie out of the case, is a sort of alter ego for Winterbottom himself.

What is important to realize, even at the literal level, is that this is a movie, not a documentary, hence adherence to historical details cannot be expected.

But the literal level, and the case with it, is indeed the least important part of the movie, and this is why, in my opinion, casual watchers, case buffs of both sides (pro-innocence and pro-guilt) and ultimately also many reviewers accustomed to writing about blockbusters, have dismissed Winterbottom’s work as a failure.

The case, the trial, the whodunit, are totally secondary to the ultimate meaning of the movie, and hence they appear to be badly developed, because trying to “read” this movie through the facts (even those just reported in the fiction of the movie) of the case is like trying to read a book skipping two pages out of three.

The trial is little more than a distracted background, mainly useful to mark the progression of time throughout an otherwise almost timeless movie.

The prosecutor, the lawyers, the witnesses are (deliberately) flat and monotonous: it’s a device used by the director to tell us that the trial has no real interest.

The media frenzy surrounding the trial gets more of the director’s attention, and surely most of the reviews and of the debates concerning the movie have been concentrated on this theme.

There certainly is a criticism of tabloid journalism and much has been made of it, even generating embittered replies in self defense by some more directly involved British newspapers.

Winterbottom even has one of the journalists confessing that “Jessica is a blank canvas, so we project our fantasies onto it.”

A corollary of this sentence is that those who complain Elisabeth has been forgotten, often are the same who project what they see fit on Jessica, without her doing anything to receive such unwanted attention.

But Thomas/Winterbottom goes beyond that: his own world of movie makers and producers is not any better.

Nobody is really interested in the truth, but just in money and audience.

Highly symbolical is the meeting with a female producer at a sushi restaurant: Thomas tries to sell her the movie as a work based on Dante and not a simple reconstruction of events:

“but I want to do something that transcends that … I was trying to see if it is possible to use the shape of Dante’s Divine Comedy as the shape of the film … Dante was in love with the beautiful Beatrice and then she died, heartbroken he goes in search of her, but he also goes in search of a meaning to life and death.”

The both incredulous and annoyed reply of the female producer is an intentional reference by Winterbottom to the reaction he expected both by the general audience and by the critics, who are not able to understand him nor the movie.

One other key (for some at least) element confined to the literal level is the whodunit element of the case: who killed Elisabeth and how and when?

Thomas (and Winterbottom’s) answer is that the truth cannot be found.

He begins the movie searching for it, he meets people involved in the case, reads books, listens to both Ford/Nadeau and Edoardo/Sfarzo, but ultimately nothing comes from that.

Even if Edoardo has an important role in the movie and he insists that “there is the truth and there is the rest”, in the end Thomas, while listening extensively to him, and often following him physically (both in reality and dreams) never really follows him in his conclusions.

So much so that he never seriously pays attention to the script Edoardo proposes to him for the movie.

So Edoardo is not a real Virgil to Thomas, except perhaps very partially.

Even the incredible and purposely a bit ridiculous plot of the knives stolen by Thomas from Edoardo’s house is a symbol of the impossibility of finding the truth: Thomas almost risks his life (albeit it is not clear if that sequence is dream or reality) to climb down the facade of Edoardo’s house, just to finally discover those knives were nothing more than film props and have no relevance, they are fake.

So even if Thomas has before heatedly criticized the media people for not searching the truth, he progressively loses any hope of finding it himself and says to his producers that it is more honest to say “I don’t know what happened” while they want to have a story with a reconstruction of the events where he sees just a “puzzle without a solution”.

There is more truth in admitting of being unable to find a truth than in “all these easy answers”.

But ultimately Thomas loses interest in this truth (the truth about the case) because he comes to feel this specific truth is not all that important, indeed it is ultimately not relevant.

Because the real truth and its ultimate meaning, what Thomas is really looking for and also the real meaning of Winterbottom’s work have to be looked for in the two higher levels of reading.


The allegorical level

Only one factual element of the case is considered at the allegorical level, and it is the so called confession (or “spontaneous statement”) made by Jessica/Amanda during the night interrogation.

Even if it is just a brief moment in the framework of the film, its symbolism is so clear that one cannot but surmise that through it Winterbottom takes a stance on the issue.

Jessica reads her “confession” in front of a silent female police officer from a sheet of paper in front of her and her tone of voice is passive and monotonous.

It could not be more transparent: she is passively interpreting the script written by someone else. A script has been forced on her, she is doing nothing of her own free will.

Other, more background elements of the case are present in an allegorical representation.

The night party life of Siena/Perugia tells us that all students drink and smoke pot, hence this is irrelevant.

More importantly Thomas, through Melanie, a British student spending a year of “study” (it “is an excuse to have fun for a year”, she admits) in Italy (not by chance like Elisabeth/Meredith and Jessica/Amanda), looks for a pusher and gets an addiction to cocaine.

Here too there is an allegorical symbolism: “I, Thomas, the director, do all the worst they, the defendants, have been accused of, so, be it true or not, what does it matter?”

But there is more than just drugs: Thomas dreams of stabbing his estranged wife while she is in bed with her new lover.

Here too we have an allegory: we are all able to kill and we all may have our own reasons for doing it, hence ultimately who really used a knife is not all that important.

There is, however, a higher level of symbology, this one directly intertwined with Dante’s work and it gives the movie its true meaning.

The movie opens with the sequence of a young female child on a beach: from the photo on Thomas’ Mac Book we realize she represents also (but not exclusively, as we will see) his daughter Bea (short for Beatrice, not by chance).

The British student Melanie is “hired” by Thomas as a guide to Siena and Beatrice is also a guide to Dante in the Paradise of the Divine Comedy.

But there is a much more direct allegory for that: in a dream scene Thomas watches Melanie eating a heart. Well, Dante in the Vita Nuova reports having had an identical dream about Beatrice.

Hence Melanie is Beatrice, but she is Beatrice alive, Beatrice on Earth, the Beatrice of the Vita Nuova.

So much so that Melanie invites Thomas to put aside the “boring” Divine Comedy in favor of the Vita Nuova, which she qualifies as the “book of love”.

And Melanie is a student abroad as Elisabeth/Meredith and Jessica/Amanda are and indeed she subsumes them both, in a further allegory.

That Elisabeth and Jessica are quite similar can be surmised from one of the few scenes of his aborted movie for which Thomas writes a script: their almost simultaneous arrival at the house (a transparent stand-in for the cottage at Via della Pergola) in Siena.

The actresses portraying them are more much more similar in their appearance than Knox and Kercher were, even their style of dressing is almost identical, so much so that without the help of the script (running in the form of subtitles) one could have trouble distinguishing them.

Hence we have another, perhaps controversial to some, allegory: in life Jessica/Amanda and Elisabeth/Meredith were quite similar, so much so that they could have been exchanged for each other.

That Melanie subsumes both can be derived from her being a part time waitress (like Amanda Knox was), by her starting to sing impromptu during a car ride with Thomas (a transparent reference to one of the “annoying” behaviors of Amanda Knox) and by her being not just British but from London (and this is a not too veiled reference to Meredith Kercher).

But if Melanie is Beatrice alive, Elisabeth is the Heavenly Beatrice, Beatrice beyond death and here Winterbottom reaches the peak of his symbology and also reaches the core of the meaning of his work.

To fully understand this crucial element we have to put together hints left at various points in the movie.

There is the scene in which Thomas dreams of a dark forest (or “gloomy wood”): this is most evidently the “selva oscura” Dante refers to in the very famous incipit of the Divine Comedy:

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.”

“When half way through the journey of our life

I found that I was in a gloomy wood

because the path which led aright was lost.”

In this wood Thomas first sees a robed figure, who cannot but be Virgil, since he speaks with the words of Virgil at that point of the Divine Comedy: “If you want to see the blessed, a spirit worthier than I must lead you.”

Then the camera pans to a second robed, female figure, and this cannot but be Beatrice, the Heavenly one, who will lead Dante into Paradise later in the Comedy.

But if one takes pains to look carefully at that Beatrice (better to do that with a stop-motion on a computer), one realizes that she has the face of Elisabeth.

Hence Elisabeth is the Heavenly Beatrice, the guide to Salvation for Dante/Thomas.

That Elisabeth coincides with such an higher representation of Beatrice can also be derived from the scene of her funeral, in which her father, during her eulogy, quotes the passage from the Vita Nuova that Dante dedicates to Beatrice’s death.

The same passage is again quoted during the final sequences of tribute to Elisabeth.

Hence Elisabeth is the dead Beatrice, but since Dante at that point of the Vita Nuova states that he will not write again about Beatrice until he will be able to write about her with a language worthy of her, and that happens for the first time in the above mentioned beginning of the Divine Comedy, and since in that scene in the movie the Beatrice in the wood has the face of Elisabeth, we now know that Elisabeth finally is, beyond death, the Heavenly Beatrice.

And she is this Beatrice in Thomas/Winterbottom’s mind when the movie closes on her slightly smiling dissolving face, against the background of a darkening Tuscan country landscape, again potentially a further final reference to the “gloomy wood” and hence to the Beatrice of the Divine Comedy, the Heavenly Beatrice.

If we follow Dante’s symbology to the end, she is now one of the Blessed in Heaven.

The moral-anagogical level

The movie opens with a little girl walking towards the camera on a beach and she is a reference to Bea, Thomas’s daughter, because on his laptop we see her photo on a beach, but she also represents the young Elisabeth/Meredith walking towards life.

Throughout the movie Thomas struggles to find a meaning to his life, particularly in his relationship with women and with love.

He struggles to have the love of her daughter, a first Bea(trice), but he can talk to her only through Skype.

He then gets into a physical relationship with Simone Ford, but while after all this gives him some human warmth, it ends with a clumsy goodbye when the trial is over.

But he also meets Melanie, and through Melanie, who is not a kid anymore, but who is still far from being disenchanted or detached as Simone or his estranged wife, he discovers that form of sublimate love Dante has for the Earthly Beatrice.

But by projecting the work of Dante onto the events of the case, he also comes to the conclusion that death on Earth is not all that important (nor are its whys and hows) if the final state, beyond death, is that of heavenly beatitude and in Thomas’ mind Elisabeth/Meredith has reached that level.

Thomas does not find a happy ending, but he does find an inkling of a superior explanation for the humanly unexplainable evils and torments of life.

A meaning for life and death.


I owe a debt to Kate Wilson for having kindled my interest in this movie and for having pushed me to look beyond the appearances.