Reading the Amanda Knox memoir Waiting to Be Heard, I was reminded of a slang term I’d heard repeated over and over while living in Italy: la bella figura. Literally translated it means, “a beautiful figure,” but in practice it refers to making a good outward impression. In other words, if you look good and act right, then you are good and right.

Back in 2007, Knox’s bella figura clearly needed some work. Shortly after her roommate, British student Meredith Kercher, was brutally murdered in the college town of Perugia, local police immediately cast a suspicious eye on Knox because she didn’t cry enough, because she kissed her boyfriend in public, because she performed a split at the police station. It’s as if once they’d concluded she was guilty, they began looking for evidence that fit their conclusions rather than the other way around.

A few days after the murder, the police triumphantly declared they’d solved the crime. Kercher had been killed by a conspiracy consisting of Knox, her Italian boyfriend, and an African immigrant (falsely identified by Knox during a stressful interrogation). When said African immigrant proved to have an unshakable alibi, he was switched out for another African immigrant, one who had left fingerprints and traces of his DNA all over the crime scene and the body of Kercher, and then subsequently fled the country.

There are plenty of people wrongly accused of various crimes in the world. So why has this one captured the world’s attention the way it has?

Almost uniformly, Italians I spoke to about the case said they were convinced the police were correct in accusing Knox, though they referred less to the evidence of her guilt than they did to the young woman’s seemingly muted reaction to the murder, the fact that she’d changed her story under duress during interrogation, or the fact that she had been having a lot of casual sex. In fact, one person told me she was convinced Knox had committed the murder because Kercher’s body had been covered by a blanket, which was something only a woman would have done.

Maybe the lack of focus on evidence was due to the fact that there just wasn’t much of it connecting Ms. Knox or her boyfriend to the crime scene, let alone a convincing motive. So the police invented some.

To believe Ms. Knox’s accusers, you have to also believe that:

  1. Two young people with no history of violent behavior whipped themselves up into a murderous frenzy by smoking pot, thereby deciding to viciously execute a friend of theirs during a sex game that no one witnessed, together with a man they barely knew.
  2. After said murderous, pot-fueled sex game, these same two young people with no criminal experience had the presence of mind to clear away all traces of their DNA from the scene, even though DNA is invisible to the naked eye, while leaving the third person’s DNA all over the scene to be found.
  3. These same young people also were clever enough to hide the murder weapon, which has as yet not been discovered, despite the prosecution’s various attempts to present various knives that don’t match the wounds on the victim’s body.

What’s remarkable to me is not so much that Knox’s prosecutors concocted such a ridiculous story but the fact that so many people along the way, including judges, were eager to swallow it for so long. (The case is still making its way through the Italian court system after six years.)

I’m not holding up Amanda Knox as a heroine here. But I am pointing to the wide cast of characters who continued to pursue — and are still pursuing — the case against her based on a series of far-fetched suppositions and a complete lack of credible evidence, as villains.

There are plenty of people wrongly accused of various crimes in the world. So why has this one captured the world’s attention the way it has?

At its root, it’s a classic travel story turned on its head.

Part of it is the media’s bias toward stories featuring white American girls in distress. Of course, there’s the sex, drugs, and race angle. And then there’s the character of Amanda Knox herself, young and beautiful, exasperatingly inconsistent in her initial response to the investigation, an awkward 20-something forced to grow up quickly in a strange land, under the harsh glare of the media spotlight.

But I think what really kicked this story into high gear is that at its root, it’s a classic travel story turned on its head. From A Room with a View to Under the Tuscan Sun, we’ve enjoyed countless stories of straight-laced, fair-skinned, English-speaking tourists who come to Italy and let their hair down.

Americans who travel to Italy have a tendency to idealize it because of its food, its culture, its leisurely pace of life. But they might also keep in mind the occasionally ugly underbelly to that country’s staggeringly beautiful veneer.

Our romanticized visions of the Adriatic peninsula obscure the very real and dire problems in an increasingly dysfunctional yet well-coiffed, well-dressed society that’s failing to combat corruption in government and business, to provide jobs to the one-third of its young people who are unemployed, and to compete with one of its chief commercial rivals, China.

Italy is a wonderful place, blessed with beautiful landscapes, glorious art and history, and of course unrivaled cuisine. But it’s also a land where all too often the pursuit of truth is valued less than the art of making a good outward impression — which makes it not that different from the direction our own Kardashian-obsessed country seems headed.

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