This documentary about the disappearance of 15-year-old Emanuela Orlandi strings viewers along with a host of unlikely conspiracy theoriesVatican Girl: The Disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, Netflix review: the latest in a long line of tasteless true-crime documentaries
Early in Vatican Girl: The Disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi (Netflix) there comes an inevitable reference to Dan Brown, whose bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, wove a ripe account of Papal skulduggery and dark secrets festering in the Holy See.
Skulduggery and secrets are likewise embedded in the mysterious vanishing in 1983 of 15-year-old school girl Orlandi. She was a “Vatican Girl”, whose family had served seven Popes and who grew up in the rococo shadow of St Peter’s Basilica. The baroque aspect of the story is played up with gusto by director Mark Lewis. He crams his four-part series with shots of St Peter’s squatting menacingly on the horizon and of Rome’s dimly-lit back streets.
Sadly the horror of Orlandi’s disappearance becomes obscured as an over-stuffed four-part documentary piles conspiracy theory upon conspiracy theory. Lewis kicks up so much cloak-and-dagger dust that it becomes hard to tell truth from fantasy. Not for the first time, a Netflix true crime documentary reduces a tragedy to over-ripe pulp.
Orlandi’s body has never been found, despite the exhumation in 2019 of two tombs inside a Vatican burial site, following an anonymous tip-off. Without concrete information, rumours have swirled through and Vatican Girl unpicks these whisperings with an enthusiasm that borders on zealous.
Lewis chases down every rabbit hole in the Vatican and beyond. The KGB, the Mafia, the Pope (several Popes, in fact), and the Vatican Bank are all lined up as potential participants in the presumed abduction and murder.
But these theories are ultimately rejected. In the final 20 minutes, a brand new hypothesis – delivered by an anonymous friend of the victim – is instead produced with a conjurer’s flourish. Three and a half hours in, some viewers may conclude Vatican Girl has been stringing them along.
Netflix has been tiptoeing along the ethical abyss for some time with its true crime slate. Its Disappearance of Madeleine McCann documentary in 2019 achieved the stonking feat of being both crass and dreary. More recently, the double-whammy of a Jeffrey Dahmer documentary and Ryan Murphy’s Dahmer drama proved taste is no barrier when it comes to feeding the audience’s appetite for grisly entertainment.
Vatican Girl is nowhere near as awful as the Dahmer films. However, as with the Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, it pads out the tale with so much extraneous detail that even the most attentive viewer may struggle to keep up – or, ultimately, care. Orlandi is downgraded to bystander in her own tragedy.
The garlanding of a terrible crime is unfortunate because, at the centre of the case, is a family buffeted by ongoing loss and grief. Lewis interviews the missing girl’s siblings Pietro, Natalina, Federica and Maria Cristina. After all these decades, they continue to mourn her absence. As does Emanuela’s mother Maria, whose eyes turn dark with sadness as she considers her daughter’s still unknown fate.
“I’ve been waiting for her,” she says. “I can’t wait to hug her again. Now or when I die, we will meet again.” It is an indictment of the documentary that the mother is kept off camera until the final episode – one last twist chucked in as if this was a game of Cluedo rather than a real story with a real victim.