Netflix’s documentary Amanda Knox (2016) begins with a telephone call reporting the discovery of the murdered body of Meredith Kerchner in a shared house in Perugia, Italy. The caller refers to an “Amanda Canox,” mispronouncing the name of the American college student who, along with her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, would twice be found guilty of Kerchner’s murder and twice found not guilty. Italy’s Supreme Court delivered the final not-guilty verdict in 2015, eight years after that initial phone call.

The mispronunciation is telling; the documentary is about the stumbling and destructive attempts to determine just who this Amanda Knox is. As Knox says, she was not the “obvious one,” even while the tabloids made her out to be a “psychopath in sheep’s clothing,” a femme fatale, with “the beautiful surface and ugly corruption beneath.”[1]

But it wasn’t just the tabloids.

The filmmakers, Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn, secured the participation of Knox and Sollecito, but also that of the prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini. “I am a Catholic,” Mignini declares in his last scene, filmed in a dark church; he prays at a side altar, illumined by candles. Mignini seems to see Knox as playing a role in a theological drama in which humans, given freedom, mysteriously contravene the will of God, and must be held to account.

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Mignini also professes his love for Sherlock Holmes. Holmes used creative imagination to invest the details ignored by the lead-footed, positivistic police with marvelous significance, and Victorian detective-heroes seemed to live in their own enchanted kingdoms.[2] As Chesterton said, “the investigator crosses London with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of elfland,” and Mignini is often pictured walking alone, gazing out into the distance, presumably seeing those things that we can’t or won’t in Perugia, a shadowy, medieval city with “crooked, claustrophobic side streets that cross each other at absurd angles” (Nathaniel Rich, “Amanda in Wonderland,” New York Review of Books, Aug. 15, 2013).

When Mignini sees Kerchner’s body, the imaginative prosecutor is convinced that only a “monster” could have killed her. But she was covered up, and Mignini — the father of four girls, he proudly tells us — believes that only a woman would have done this. What sort of woman, who is also a “monster”? The Catholic prosecutor sees Knox and Sollecito momentarily kiss outside of the crime scene and notes “affection inappropriate for the moment.” He eventually constructs a lurid scenario in which Kerchner, who had also been violated, becomes a virgin-martyr who had scolded Amanda for her “lack of morals,” and Amanda, “proud” and inhibited, gets two other men, one of them Raffaele, who were determined to “indulge” her that night, to assault and murder Kerchner.

When Knox becomes deeply upset at the murder scene, Mignini believes that she is haunted by “Meredith’s screams.” Later, Mignini cannot understand why Knox, after hours of questioning, would wrongly point her finger at another person or even react with hostility. She must be an “anarchist.” She is from Seattle, says Mignini, but he says that he does not want to speculate. When the DNA evidence collapses and Knox and Sollecito are exonerated, Mignini continues to believe in their guilt, noting that “life ends with a final trial … no appeals.” On the other hand, he has no theological language to describe the strange possibility that they are innocent. If so, perhaps they will merely “forget” their own suffering.

Mignini’s theological kitsch seems to reject any form of contextualization. There is no room for human fragility, not even that of a young American college student in a foreign country. In the documentary, Amanda Knox’s main response to Mignini’s odd framing seems to be a healthy sort of secularism. “You’re trying to find the answer in my eyes. These are my eyes,” she pleads. At least one review suggests that the documentary presents Knox as the victim of not only the tabloids but “religious conservatism.” Nevertheless, I don’t think that the lesson to take away from the documentary is that we should get rid of theological narratives in order to finally see things as they really are.

The documentary does try to contrast Knox as an ordinary young woman — “I am you,” she says at one point — with the lurid imaginings of Mignini and the tabloid press. One of the first depictions of Knox gestures at simplicity; she is clad in black clothes in a small white frame house, cooking in the company of a single cat. She later appears before a simple charcoal screen. But this is a self-conscious aesthetic choice that Knox has been making for some time.

Her autobiography says of some of her court appearances, “I thought that if I dressed in my usual jeans and a T-shirt, the judges and jury would see me for who I really was, not as Foxy Knoxy.”[3] One of her first tweets shows her in black and white, “bare-faced and solemn,” holding a placard emblazoned with two Italian words for “We are innocent.” There is an “inherent performativity” to both the tweet and this documentary.[4] One can self-consciously be ordinary.

Yet if Knox is not the femme fatale, we can’t really be sure if she’s just “us.” After all, she wrongly implicated her boss, Patrick Lumumba, who spent much of November 2007 in jail. Would “we” have done that? Seeing things as they really are may be more difficult than we thought.

In place of trying to see without fantasies or narratives, we can remember that there is a theological narrative that counters the desire to unmask and control women, whether through Mignini’s persecution or tabloid fascination. In the Book of Judith, canonical for Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, God seems absent, but becomes strangely and symbolically present through the title character, an unconventional woman who engineers the death of the Assyrian general, Holofernes, through seduction, on the 40th day of a conflict, escaping with his severed head.

As Geoffrey Miller writes, “The narrative contains no hint of opprobrium for her actions or any indication of uneasiness.” Why is this? Judith addresses a “God of the lowly, helped of those of little account, supporter of the weak, protector of those in despair, savior of those without hope” (Judith 9:11). (This, by the way, is a reading in the Episcopal lectionary for the feast day of Mary Magdalene.) This God manifests himself through, as Miller says, “the most improbable person in Israelite society: a marginalized woman,”[5] who may, in a different narrative, have been written off or even persecuted as a femme fatale.

That narrative reminds us that God can work in extraordinarily strange ways through improbable people, and our beguiling stereotypes, including that of the feminine “psychopath in sheep’s clothing,” are quite possibly unwarranted restrictions on God.

Does this mean that our misconceptions are always wrong? Not at all. And we can’t always get it right, even in the end. But perhaps this narrative can serve as a graced clearing of the head.

Footnotes

[1] Stevie Simkin, Cultural Constructions of the Femme Fatale: From Pandora’s Box to Amanda Knox. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 27.

[2] See Michael Saler,“‘Clap if You Believe in Sherlock Holmes’: Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity, c. 1980-c. 1940,” Historical Journal 46:3 (2003), pp. 599-622.

[3] Simkin, Cultural Constructions of the Femme Fatale, p. 161.

[4] Katrina Clifford, “Amanda Knox: A Picture of Innocence,” Celebrity Studies 5:4 (2014), p. 505.

[5] Geoffrey D. Miller, “A Femme Fatale of Whom ‘No One Spoke Ill’: Judith’s Moral Muddle and Her Personification of Yahweh,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 39:2 (2014), pp. 227 and 245.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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