Karen Pinkus. The Montesi Scandal: The Death of Wilma Montesi and the Birth of the Paparazzi in Fellini's Rome.
The body of Wilma Montesi, a seemingly ordinary "ragazza qualunque" was found on the beach at Tor Vaianica near Rome early on the morning of April 11, 1953. There was no evidence of violence and the body contained no trace of drugs. According to the police the death was the result of accidental drowning. This version of events was also supported by Wilma's family, who strongly resisted any implication that her death might have been a suicide. It seemed at first that this would be just another sad footnote to a long Roman summer, of little interest to anyone but the dead young woman's family and friends. But in the weeks and months that followed, shocking rumors began to circulate, linking Wilma's death to the playboy son of an influential politician and to stories of wild parties and drug-fueled orgies. The whispers grew louder and louder, and the story exploded into perhaps the defining scandal of 1950s Italy, launching a new kind of controversy and a new kind of celebrity, and providing a sudden and disturbing view of the country's political and social fault-lines.
Karen Pinkus's carefully-researched book uses the Montesi scandal as the basis for a provocative and highly original examination of some of the key obsessions of 1950s Italian society and their crucial role in the development of the culture of celebrity as we know it. The book takes the form of notes for the screenplay of an unrealized and unrealizable film about Wilma's death and its aftermath, illustrated with an excellent selection of paparazzi and news photographs and stills from films of the 1940s and 1950s.
The case has never been solved, and Pinkus presents no new evidence to sway the reader in favor of one hypothesis of another. Yet while this lack of narrative closure is one of the reasons that Wilma's "film" remains unfilmable, it does not deter Pinkus from retelling the story. Rather than trying to solve the mystery of Wilma's death, she instead explores how a minor news item turned into an all-encompassing media circus. Pinkus argues effectively that the significance of the Montesi scandal must be understood in relation to the backdrop against which it unfolded: that of a country emerging from the shadow of fascism and war into the prosperity of the economic boom. With this prosperity came a newfound mobility, both in terms of migration from country to city, and in terms of the production of thousands of cars and motor scooters (the paparazzo's chosen mode of transportation). Pinkus also emphasizes the role of a new, specifically female mobility, as well as the importance of changing notions of women's roles and constructions of femininity (for example, in the ways in which Wilma was portrayed by different people with different interests as an innocent victim or a drug-crazed sex-toy).
As the author writes in the prologue, the book cannot be labeled either as academic theory of journalism. Rather, it is "a series of notes of various registers and intensities for an unrealized screenplay. These notes tell the story of an actual scandal that took place in 1950s Italy, but the narrative is often interrupted with asides, cultural details, and critique concerning primarily the intersections of cinema, paparazzo photography, tabloids, femininity, and politics" (1). These interruptions at times make the narrative somewhat difficult to follow, but they succeed very effectively in recreating the heady mixture of the glamorous and the sordid, the fantastic and the everyday, the cinematic and the prosaic that characterized this unique period in the recent history of Rome.
Pinkus focuses above all on the ways in which the Montesi case highlights what she calls the process of "cinematization" of Italian daily life in the 1950s. This is reflected in the structure of the book itself, which is organized around key "cinematic moments" rather than conventional chapters, and opens with a list of the "cast of characters." These include not just Wilma and her family, but an extraordinary collection of would-be starlets, glamorous socialites, political rivals, journalists and gossip columnists, corrupt police officers and politicians, a clairvoyant, and numerous other "witnesses" who came forward at various times, claiming (most often spuriously) to be able to shed lurid light on the events surrounding Wilma's death. All of these characters play a highly self-conscious role in the "film" that was the Montesi case, seemingly with a heightened awareness of the filmic nature of the events in which they were embroiled.
In investigating the connections of the Montesi scandal to the explosion of the paparazzi phenomenon and the culture of celebrity, Pinkus explicitly situates the events she describes against the backdrop of a city that functioned as a single giant film set. The Rome of the 1950s--"Fellini's Rome," as the subtitle of Pinkus's book has it--is crucial to the events she recounts. The self-consciousness of the actors in the Montesi drama was echoed by an awareness of this "cinematization" of daily life on the part of a number of contemporary commentators. Pinkus quotes from an article by Indro Montanelli in the Corriere della sera in which he comments on "the strange, new phenomenon whereby all of humanity seems preoccupied with behaving as if they are in front of a movie camera ... everything today is material for publicity, material for a news conference, and material for the cinema" (43). Ennio Flaiano, who co-wrote La dolce vita with Fellini, also pointed to the difficulty of distinguishing reality from cinema in a city like Rome: "Is another reality at all necessary? Is this rosy Roman reality not sufficient? Certainly it is hard to live and be judged in a city where the one industry is cinema. One ends up believing that life is a function of the cinema, one becomes the photographic eye, one sees reality as a reflection of what lives and palpitates on the screen" (2). As Pinkus points out, the cross-fertilization between cinema and reality is evident in the final moments of La dolce vita where the discovery of the body of a giant fish stranded on the beach by a group of jaded revelers has obvious echoes of the Montesi case.
The Montesi Scandal emphasizes the crucial importance of the role of photographic technologies and images in this and subsequent scandals. The 1950s were a period in which readily accessible photographic technologies provided more and more people with the means to pose as the stars of their daily lives, with tabloids, movies and magazines providing a constant flow of models for such posing. At the same time, a new type of photographer was providing unprecedented access to the daily life of the famous. As the book points out, the paparazzo--a name chosen by Fellini and Flaiano for their photographer in La dolce vita--is an apt symbol of the symbiosis of cinema and life in Rome. Pinkus goes on to argue that there is also a clear relationship between the explosion of the Montesi scandal and the development of a new style of filmmaking "that seemed to mobilize the paparazzo shot, with all of its contradictions and instability" (2). This inextricable intermingling of life and cinema is perhaps most powerfully demonstrated in Pinkus's book by the photographs and film stills that illustrate it, since it is often very difficult to tell the film stills from the paparazzi shots from newspapers and magazines of the time without their fotoromanzo-style headings. In their indistinguishableness, these images provide a powerful visual argument for what Pinkus calls the "production of vernacular imagery in which stars and ordinary people come increasingly to resemble one another" (2). Her analysis of this process is a timely reminder that the current obsession with televised "reality" has roots that go deeper than is often assumed.
Pinkus's original and absorbing study is a noteworthy contribution to the study not only of the culture of 1950s Italy, but also of the profound connections between film, photography and everyday life over the past half century.
SARAH PATRICIA HILL
Victoria University of Wellington
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|Author:||Hill, Sarah Patricia|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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