‘An intriguing social history at a pivotal moment of change for Italian society’ – Dolce Vita: Murder, Mystery and Scandal in 1950s Rome by Stephen Gundle

On 9 April 1953, 21-year old Wilma Montesi went missing from her family home in Rome. Thirty-six hours later her body was found washed up on a deserted beach at Torvaianica. Suicide was suspected at first but Wilma’s respectable middle-class family quickly embraced the theory that the young woman had been bathing her feet and had tragically fallen and drowned. The police accepted this scenario of accidental death with suspicious haste and the case was closed. The evidence, however, didn’t fit the official verdict. Wilma’s shoes, skirt, stockings and suspender belt were missing. There were reported sightings of her with a wealthy man and rumours of Wilma leading a double life. The press wouldn’t let the story go. With rumours and speculation flying around Rome the case was reopened and with it a Pandora’s box. Several investigations and trials uncovered a web of corruption and vice which went to the top of Italian society and implicated the son of the deputy leader of the ruling government party. It lifted the veil on a very different Rome to the city of romance and glamour portrayed in such films as Roman Holiday.

Rome in the 1950s was a magnet for American film stars and the local film industry was one of the city’s major employers. Gundle writes about this ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ in absorbing detail. American studios were making their own films in Italy and the stars came to Rome to work and play. Young Italian women and girls aspired to their glamorous lifestyle and dreamt of being discovered. The reality for these young wannabes which was exposed by the Montesi case was a sordid lifestyle of corruption, drugs and orgies and the sexual exploitation of young women. The investigations and trials uncovered a web of connections between the top echelons of Roman society and one Ugo Montagna, a dashing influence peddler who was accused of involvement in drugs, debauchery and Wilma Montesi’s murder. Gundle writes about the bewildering events of the investigations and trials with a sense of the absurd theatre that they became. Everyone involved seemed to have dubious alibis and something to hide and all played up to the feverish press. The case received worldwide coverage.

The Montesi case marked a change in the way the press operated. Gundle argues that the coverage of the case gave rise to the birth of the paparazzi and in turn led to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. The scandal rocked the establishment and was a defining moment for post-dictatorship Italian society. Occasionally the detailed descriptions of post-war Italian cinema and the characters of Rome’s Via Veneto seemed to overshadow the Montesi case. The endless intrigues and cover-ups of the case also make Dolce Vita a slightly convoluted read at times. If you stick with it, however, the reward is an intriguing social history at a pivotal moment of change for Italian society. At times Wilma Montesi seemed peripheral but Gundle rightly refuses to ignore that there was a victim at the centre of this infamous case. Dolce Vita also shows that the obsession with celebs and paparazzi baiting techniques are nothing new and Gundle pertinently compares aspects of the Montesi case with Silvio Berlusconi’s recent antics.

Any Cop?: An absorbing insight into the other side of post-war Rome.

Anna Foden

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