Early in Vatican Girl: The Disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi (Netflix), a reference to Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, weaves a rich story of Papal skulduggery and dark secrets festering in the Holy See.
The four-part series, which is based on an unsolved missing-person case involving the 15-year-old daughter of a Vatican official, does not claim to solve the mystery that has enthralled Italians for 40 years. It does, however, present numerous possibilities for the girl’s disappearance, the remains of which have never been discovered.
Emanuela Orlandi was the daughter of Ercole Orlandi, a citizen of Vatican City State and an ambassador of the Prefecture of the Pontifical House. Her disappearance on June 22, 1983, while departing for a piano lesson in Rome made headlines and fueled suspicion for years. The case was closed in 2016 after many investigations.
Skulduggery and secrets are also present in the inexplicable disappearance of 15-year-old schoolgirl Orlandi in 1983. She was a “Vatican Girl,” born into a family that had served seven Popes and raised in the rococo shadow of St Peter’s Basilica. Director Mark Lewis emphasizes the story’s baroque elements with passion. He jams his four-part series with views of St Peter’s looming on the horizon and Rome’s darkly lighted back alleyways.
Unfortunately, the horror of Orlandi’s abduction is masked as a four-part documentary piled conspiracy hypothesis atop conspiracy theory. Lewis creates so much cloak-and-dagger dust that it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction. Not for the first time, a Netflix real crime documentary mutilates a tragedy Vatican Girl.
Despite the exhumation of two graves inside a Vatican burial site in 2019 in response to an anonymous tip, Orlandi’s body has never been recovered. Rumors have circulated in the absence of facts, and Vatican Girl unearths these whisperings with fervor.
Lewis investigates every rabbit hole in the Vatican and beyond. The KGB, the Mafia, the Pope (really, multiple Popes), and the Vatican Bank are all being investigated as possible collaborators in the kidnapping and murder.
These views, however, are eventually dismissed. In the last 20 minutes, a whole new notion is offered with a conjurer’s flourish by an unnamed friend of the victim. After three and a half hours, some viewers may assume that Vatican Girl has been playing them.
Netflix’s real crime slate has been tiptoeing down the ethical abyss for some time. Its 2019 documentary The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann accomplished the incredible accomplishment of being simultaneously vulgar and depressing.
Only recently, the double-whammy of a Jeffrey Dahmer documentary and Ryan Murphy’s Dahmer play showed that taste is no barrier to satisfying the audience’s thirst for horrific entertainment.
Vatican Girl is not quite as bad as the Dahmer flicks. However, like Madeleine McCann, it fills the story with so much unnecessary information that even the most observant spectator may struggle to keep up – or, ultimately, care. Orlandi is reduced to the status of a bystander in her tragedy.
The adoration of a heinous act is regrettable because at the heart of the story is a family beleaguered by constant loss and pain.
Pietro, Natalina, Federica, and Maria Cristina, the missing girl’s siblings, are interviewed by Lewis. They are still saddened by her absence after all these years. As does Emanuela’s mother, Maria, whose eyes darken with anguish as she thinks of her daughter’s uncertain destiny.
“I’ve been expecting her,” she adds. “I can hardly wait to hold her again.” We’ll meet again now or when I die.”
The documentary’s decision to keep the mother off the camera until the last episode – one more twist thrown in as if this were a game of Cluedo rather than a true narrative with a true victim – is an indictment of the documentary.