The Montesi Scandal: The Death of Wilma Montesi and the Birth of the Paparazzi in Fellini's Rome (review)
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Reviewed by
Karen Pinkus, The Montesi Scandal: The Death of Wilma Montesi and the Birth of the Paparazzi in Fellini’s Rome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 184 pp. $27.50 (cloth).

Pinkus's book is dedicated to a famous scandal and unsolved mystery of the early 1950s in italy: the murder of Wilma Montesi, an attractive young girl from a small bourgeois family. Wilma's body was found on a beach outside Rome, face down in the sand, one morning in April 1953. Her body was clothed but missing shoes, stockings, and one garter belt; her lungs were filled with water and her vagina with sand. It was a tragic and inexplicable end that prompted a series of investigations and cover-ups amounting to a puzzling tangle, a pasticcio worthy of Carlo Emilio Gadda's fictional Quer Pasticciaccio Brutto De Via Merulana—the famous novel, similarly centered on the corpse of another (fictional) beautiful woman assassinated in similarly ambiguous circumstances, which had been serialized in the journal Letteratura just a few years earlier. Whereas Gadda's fictional background was a 1927 fascist Rome supposedly cleansed of crime by Mussolinian order, the backdrop of the Montesi case is the Rome of the frenzied "reconstruction years" following World War Ii, with its contamination of the holy and the profane. This Rome—which Fellini would immortalize shortly afterwards (in 1960) in La dolce vita, with its emerging media and paparazzi [End Page 109] along with the similarly emerging Cinecittà industry—is the backdrop of the crime in question, with its compound of tender but ambiguous petit bourgeois familial ties, the arrogant black fascist aristocracy, the offspring of influential politicians, starlets and Hollywood actresses, generic sinners coming from all ways of life, plus, needless to say, drugs and sex.

Author and reader find understandably appealing such an intoxicating mix of traditionally elite and pop cultures, conveniently condensed in a single event, placed at the critical juncture of the Fifties—an event that at the time no one, not even the Pope, could refrain from commenting on. Hence Pinkus's promotion of the Montesi case to more than just another episode of cronaca nera. Instead, the Montesi scandal provides the almost filmic space where fiction and the real of contemporary Italian society commingle in the everyday life of its agents. Pinkus sets her own undertaking under the aegis of Henri Lefebvre, Michel De Certeau, and the school of "everyday life" (2). she thus manages to produce a well-written, evocative book that divorces the idea of a solution to the murder of Wilma Montesi in order to eye the broader horizon of the time period in question. She does so by way of a mix of reality (historical, written and visual documents) with fiction (her own recounting and the still frames of films that she deems evocative of the facts in question). The limit of such an accomplishment, if one wants to look for one, lies not so much in Pinkus's seemingly daring exploitation and montage of spurious sources (interviews, trial transcripts, pictures, still frames, narration, etc.), but rather in its imperfect radicalism.

Pinkus's disclaimer at the beginning of her book ("this is not, strictly speaking, a work of academic theory" but rather an "interstitial" "series of notes of various registers and intensities for an unrealized screenplay" [1]), should not be taken at face value. It conceals the ambition of a project that, even more than to the theorists mentioned above, seems to point towards Walter Benjamin—although not the Benjamin Pinkus briefly mentions in passing (4), but the Benjamin of the Arcades Project, his major opus. in his unfinished Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin was after an innovative, awakened mode that would allow us to grasp the truth of our past, in particular the past of the Parisian arcades, in the process of our present, i.e., as it occurs. That perception would allow us to construct the totality of a single "moment of truth" or monad in the many fragmented sources, architecture, literature, posters, etc., or "crystals of the total event" (§n2,6). He strove to found a new historiography by way of a literary montage of...