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The Face of an Angel

The truth remains in the shadows

Innocent or guilty? Michael Winterbottom’s new film “The Face of an Angel” is based on a real criminal case. But instead of putting the crime in the forefront, he prefers to examine how we deal with such events.

The-Face-of-an-Angel-poster-2014In Siena in Italy, a beautiful angelic English student has been murdered. Her equally beautiful and angelic US-American roommate is put on trial alongside her Italian boyfriend. But was the murderer a black barman? Or a completely different black man, as the defendants claim?

The director Michael Winterbottom does not care much about the answers to these questions. He is much more interested in why they are asked.

The main protagonist in “The Face of an Angel” is also a film director, Thomas Lang (Daniel Brühl). Lang is supposed to be making a film about the murder. His production company is looking for a blockbuster with a black and white story where it is clear who is the perpetrator and who the victim. But Thomas insists on pursuing his artistic vision. In one of the funniest scenes of the film, he tries to explain to the producers exactly how his screenplay reflects Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. The producers are not remotely interested, preferring to go through a list of fashionable actresses who they could win for the film.

Lang finds it all the more difficult to write a simple story of good and evil because the murder has still not been solved. One journalist publishes extracts from the diary of the accused Jessica which show that she was sexually active (and therefore obviously guilty). Another female journalist pleads vehemently for Jessica’s innocence – although she doesn’t see the need to look for any evidence. Jessica’s culpability is also hotly debated in Internet forums.

During the first court hearings, Jessica appears to be flippant and dislikeable, and is declared guilty on this basis. At the appeal, she dresses respectably, says little, and is acquitted. Obviously there has been a miscarriage of justice where the jury has been influenced by appearance more than the facts – but which time was it?

Winterbottom is here a long way away from his earlier film about a miscarriage of justice – “The Road to Guantanamo”. This film, about the 3 British Muslims who were wrongly imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, is an appeal for their innocence in the face of an all-powerful state apparatus. For me, “The Road to Guantanamo” is the better film, but you’ve got to give Winterbottom the credit for not simply regurgitating the same old story.

Thomas claims that there is not truth. Winterbottom’s position seems to be more subtle. Truth does exist, but this does not necessarily mean that we know what is true and what isn’t. Journalists (and film directors) rarely have any real interest in finding the truth. For them it’s enough to find a superficial story that they are able to sell.

Thus we learn more about the sex life of the possible perpetrators (and of the victim) than we gain information that could be used to make an educated judgment about what really happened.

So far, “The Face of an Angel” has received mixed reviews. The most critical reviewers were those who were looking for an explanation of the true-life murder of Amanda Knox (on which this film is based). But Winterbottom is quite clear here: without investigative journalism which has not been done, he is in no position to say more about this case than is already known.  What he can do is offer a story of a film director suffering a mid-life crisis. This may not be enough for everyone, but I find this response quite legitimate.

“The Face of an Angel” does have various weaknesses – not least the sprawling dream sequences.  But as a whole, the film is very ambitious and poses interesting questions about art, truth and love. The fact that it isn’t always able to answer these questions doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth a try.

Directed by Michael Winterbottom: German Release Date: May 21, 2015

The original version of this review appeared in the marx21 magazine Issue 40, Summer 2015.

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