Monday, February 28, 2011

Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy (PIlgrim/Project X/Lifetime, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was the awkwardly titled Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy, based on a real-life tabloid case I’d already seen broadcast on Dateline NBC and which Lifetime accompanied with an hour-long documentary (which I haven’t watched yet) purporting to tell the true story. Amanda Knox was a young, rather flaky but nonetheless studious young woman who had grown up in Seattle, her parents had divorced, and in the middle of her college education she decided to do a year’s worth of studying in Perugia, Italy. She moved there in the summer of 2007 and found a room in a cottage with three other girls her age, including Meredith Kercher (Amanda Fernando Stevens), who had come from Britain but was otherwise doing much the same thing Amanda was. The two met on the campus of the University of Perugia and got along at first, but Meredith soon got upset with Amanda for leaving the bathroom they shared too dirty, not doing her share of the dishes and other pretty normal antagonisms people in communal living arrangements often fall into.

Two months after Amanda’s arrival, Meredith is found murdered in her room and suspicion falls on Amanda, her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito (Paolo Romio) and a Black drifter, an immigrant from Africa named Rudy Guede (Djibril Kédé). The police become convinced that the three of them committed the brutal assault together, staging the scene so it looked like Meredith had been raped and killed by an outsider who had broken in, and as with so many other recent tales of police interrogation (including the Michael Crowe case in Escondido and Cameron Todd Willingham, not only convicted but actually executed in Texas for burning his house down and killing his three daughters, a crime arson experts who examined the evidence later concluded didn’t happen at all because the fire started accidentally), it soon becomes clear that the purpose of interrogation is not to elicit information, but to zero in on a person or persons the police have already decided is guilty and get either a confession or at least more evidence (including contradictory statements) to bolster their case.

The question of whether Amanda Knox did it is rather peripheral to the movie — oddly, of the two people who have commented on the film on one said it skewed the story to make her look innocent and one said it skewed the story to make her look guilty (and the latter person also used his commentary as the excuse for a diatribe against the Roman Catholic Church, which he seemed to think was responsible for framing Amanda even though there’s no evidence for that) — the real interest is in the interrogation process (the police give Amanda the old line that they’ll go easier on her if she talks) and also in the way both sides exploited the media to try the case: the local prosecutors talked up the case in the Italian media (especially their tabloids — remember that for the last two decades or so Italy is a country that has been run by a tabloid publisher!) and the Knox family talked it up in the American media, while the victim’s family talked it up in the British media.

There is a bit of a sense of culture shock when Amanda finds herself confronted with a criminal justice system dramatically different from the one back home — but as things turn out the Italian justice system isn’t that different (there’s still a jury, a prosecution and a defense — she isn’t being tried by a judge and she isn’t being presumed guilty, at least not so far as we can tell from Wendy Battles’ script) except in one detail: when the prosecutor in the case, Mignini (Vincent Riotta), is himself indicted for malfeasance in an earlier case he isn’t taken off this case, as he surely would be in the U.S. (if for no other reason than any U.S. district attorney wouldn’t want to risk a reversal on appeal by having a case presented by a tainted prosecutor!); he goes right ahead and tries it, and even his eventual conviction on the charges from the earlier case (of a serial killer in 1985) has no bearing on the Knox case; in fact, when Amanda claims to have been beaten by police while in custody (something that, as old movies reveal, was actually routine in this country before the Warren Court and the Miranda rule!), the Italian authorities not only investigate (more or less; I’ve seen too many police whitewashes under the guise of “investigating” their fellow officers’ conduct to take that all too seriously!) and find the officers guiltless, they threaten Knox’s parents with three years’ imprisonment if they keep repeating the charge that their daughter was beaten while incarcerated.

It’s a pity all these interesting issues didn’t get stated in a better movie — Battles’ script and Robert Dornhelm’s direction bounce around from time to time and, though there are a few titles giving us time cues, there aren’t enough of them, so that in one scene we’ll hear characters discussing Meredith’s murder and in the next one, separated only by a jump cut, we’ll see her alive and well. Amanda Knox is a better-than-average Lifetime movie but hardly the film it could have been, even on a Lifetime budget — and it also doesn’t help that the film’s Italian characters, though played by actors whose names at least look genuinely Italian, speak in English throughout and use accents that suggest that they learned our language from watching Chico Marx. (I’d have preferred to have the Italian characters talking to each other in Italian, with English subtitles — but that many subtitles on a TV-movie would probably have driven the average non-film-buff viewer crazy.)