Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel fictionalises facts to get its point across.
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Filmmakers serve as the watchdogs of society. This is despite the vehement denial by some, who will tell you that they are merely entertainers, that it is not their business to change a community or how its people think or behave. These considerations are hardly ever in our minds, they will quip. But the truth is something else — at least often, it is so.
If one were to look at early Indian cinema, much of it was social crusade. Sujata was a searing critique of untouchability. Do Bigha Zameen spoke about the tyranny of the zamindari system. Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai chronicled the lives of dacoits and the importance of reforming them. Manthan focussed on the crime of adulterating milk and the need for a co-operative system. K Balachander made some extremely provocative cinema in South Indian languages about the ills of social practices. Malayalam auteur Adoor Gopalakrishnan once said that every movie of his had something significant to say about society. His Nizhalkkuthu while demonstrating the guilt of a hangman, was conveying that the state had no business to execute anybody. Girish Kasaravalli’s Tabarana Kathe in Kannada was a sad study of administrative corruption and ineptitude.
Many of these films made a huge impact on the box office and the conscience of a nation, which is — after close to seven decades of independence from British rule — still grappling with material greed, selfishness of the moneyed class and the putridness among bureaucrats and ministers. One of the most important reasons why these movies made an enduring mark was the ability of the writers and directors to fictionalise facts.
In the context, Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel, which has just begun its theatrical run, appears to be an apt example. In an early scene, actors Kate Beckinsale and Daniel Bruhl are discussing a murder trial in Sienna (Italy).
“If you’re going to make the film on the trial, make it a fiction,” Beckinsale’s seasoned journalist Simone tells Thomas, the dissolute director played by Brühl, as they sip coffee in a scenic Roman square. “You can’t tell the truth unless you make it a fiction.” Brühl agrees.
The Face of an Angel is based on the murder of a British student, Meredith Kercher, in the Italian town of Perugia in 2007 — and the sensational trial as well as the unexpected acquittal of the principal accused, Amanda Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito.
After four years in prison, both Knox and Sollecito were released on the order of Italian courts. They were retried, but set free again by the country’s highest court.
Winterbottom’s work never mentions Kercher or Knox. They are given different names, and therein begins the helmer’s fictitious journey into one of the most perplexing murder cases/trials in recent times. And the movie — which I saw at the International Film Festival of India in Goa last November — may be somewhat disappointing for viewers. For, it is not going to give them what they might expect out of a plot like that of The Face of an Angel, although Winterbottom makes an attempt to address the truth.
“Obviously we’re aware that this movie isn’t going to give people what they expect,” Winterbottom said during a recent interview. “The idea of the film starts off one way, and then every 10 minutes — as soon as you start to think, ‘Oh it’s going to go this way,’ — it changes. It goes from murder investigation to journalists and then journalists to struggling director and so on. I’m aware of that, and I’m hoping — to be honest — that these changes are part of what keep you watching, because you’re wondering how it’s going to end up. You’re aware that the movie is disappearing off down an alleyway that you didn’t really want to go down, but you’ll keep going because you want to see what’s at the end.”
I certainly wanted to see what the climax was going to be, and like many others, I had followed the legal proceedings of the Kercher murder case. Genevieve Gaunt, who as Jessica Fuller in the film, essays the real life Amanda Knox (an American student who shared the flat with Kercher), has the face of an angel, and her arresting looks provided fodder for the local Italian media, whose reporting was frequently seen as malicious and blatantly biased.
Gaunt once said The Face of an Angel “is not a whodunit. It’s a movie about relationships and loss, with a courtroom as a backdrop. The case is so complex; the more you know, the less you know. For me, Amanda Knox is an enigma. The most sensitive approach for me as an actor was to keep her that way.”
Well, she did just that. And Winterbottom created a hauntingly poignant story by weaving frames of fiction out of facts.
Korean cinema comes to Chennai now. The just-established Indo-Korean Cine Club will show movies once every three months. To begin with, Pacemaker and A Reason to Live were shown last week.
The screenings were part of an attempt in Chennai to present cinema from different regions of the world. While Germany’s Goethe Institut, Alliance Francaise and the American Centre have been for many years showing films from their respective countries and to packed houses, movies from South-East Asia have been conspicuous by their absence. And some great films are being made in Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.
In a city like Chennai, where there is an overkill of Tamil cinema (with even Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and English movies being treated as poor cousins), Korean films will come as a welcome change to meet the desire for sensitive and sensible fare.
Both Pacemaker and A Reason to Live deal with refreshingly novel themes. Dal-Joong Kim’s Pacemaker is the story of an underdog sportsman — who sprints with a runner not to compete but to egg him on to win. This guy acts precisely like a pacemaker inside one’s chest that regulates and helps the heart to beat evenly. However, the pacemaker on the track encourages an actual runner to move faster.
Award winning Korean star Kim Myung Min (Detective K) essays the downtrodden Man Ho, a former marathon runner fallen on bad days — which drive him to work as a delivery boy for a friend’s restaurant. His scooter breaks down often, and Man uses his feet to supply food on time — his pair of legs never letting him down.
Good luck smiles on Man, when he is asked by a well-wishing national coach to act as a pacemaker for a new athlete, Korea’s big hope for the upcoming 2012 London Olympics. Despite old physical injuries and a humiliation which nags his very spirit, Man agrees to return to the race track, and finds his old energy pushing him once again to touch the skies.
Pacemaker is well crafted, and midway, we realise that despite the movie’s predictability, it is the journey which is more important than the finishing line. What is more, Pacemaker’s beat is even and comfortable, and Min scores with his ability to help the viewer connect with Man. We go along with the sportsman’s dream, and feel sorry for his plight, and this is the humanistic touch which the director establishes in the course of his narrative.
Of course, Kim has one of Korea’s most versatile actors playing the lead. Min’s performance is nuanced and he is in great form in Pacemaker.
Lee Jeong-hyang’s A Reason to Live presents the moral dilemma of a young woman, Da-hae, who loses her fiancé in a road accident. A younger biker hits the man on a rainy night in a deserted street, and instead of helping the man, the teenager runs over the victim again! The woman forgives the biker and helps revoke his death sentence.
Lee’s work has this ethereal melancholic romanticism about it, and is punctuated by pensive musical moments. One is tempted to compare A Reason to Live with Lee Changdong’s Secret Sunshine. Both films elaborate on women’s suffering and their inner conflict in accepting a loved one’s unjust murder in a world which seems to have no providence.
A Reason to Live explores forgiveness in a Christian context, though in the end the protagonist is not anywhere near to resolving her inner struggle and turmoil. Song Hye-kyo’s role as the suffering woman is not very different from the characters she has been portraying on television, though the actress infuses into her part a great deal of composure and restraint.
Both Pacemaker and A Reason to Live offer a rare insight into the Korean way of thinking and the nation’s social customs and mannerisms. And these certainly add to the uniqueness of these works.
* Gautaman Bhaskaran has been writing on Indian and world cinema for over three decades, and may be e-mailed at
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