It is very difficult to fathom being born into royalty. It’s just hard to comprehend what that life involves and the expectations you’re raised with. It’s equally hard to fathom what might happen if that destiny you were born into is taken away from you at a young age. A new Italian docuseries takes a look at a man whose life changed in that exact way, and what led to an incident where he was accused of killing a 19-year-old.
THE KING WHO NEVER WAS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: An older man stares into the camera, and he takes off his glasses as the camera zooms in. “I am Vittorio Emanuele,” he says. “Vittorio Emanuele of Savoy. Voila. They call me ‘prince.’”
The Gist: The King Who Never Was is a 3-part docuseries about Emanuele, who was the last heir to the Italian throne. His father, King Umberto II, and his entire family went into exile in 1946, when Emanuele was 9. That was when a referendum was presented to the Italian people about whether the monarchy should continue; the citizens voted to create a republic.
Emanuele has lived most of his life in exile; by 1978, he and his wife and kids lived part of the year on the island of Cavallo, on the south cost of Corsica, France. Via eyewitness interviews, the incident of August 17/18, 1978 is retold, where Emanuele, already annoyed by “shitty Italians” being loud and boisterous during dinner with his wife, finds that the dinghy off his yacht was tied to another nearby boat.
Enraged, he took a rifle to the other boat; his intention was to scare the people who took the dinghy. A man named Nicky Pende was on one of the three boats anchored next to each other, and he saw the rifle pointed at him. According to Pende, shots rang out, then he tossed Emanuele and his gun overboard. One person was hurt: Dirk Hamer, at 19-year-old sleeping two boats away from where Pende and Emanuele tussled. Hamer died of his injuries on December 7.
Emanuele was held for two months, but was ultimately released to await whatever charges might be filed; Hamer’s sister Birgit, whom Dirk accompanied on the trip at their father’s request, was determined to see Emanuele charged with murder, or at least manslaughter, in the case.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? The King Who Never Was plays out like many true-crime docuseries, such as The Secrets Of Hillsong and many, many others. But the people involved in this story are a whole degree different than what we’re used to seeing in these shows.
Our Take: While watching The King Who Never Was, directed by Beatrice Borromeo, we couldn’t help but sigh and think that this was a story about a dispute between a group of wealthy white people and another wealthy white person who just happened to be deposed royalty. The entire story of Vittorio Emanuele and what happened in August 1978 drips with privilege, from the video footage being shot on what was then likely very expensive equipment, to the young people lounging on yachts and playing water volleyball, to even the Flintstones-style abode the Emanuele and the rest of his family summered in.
But the incident in 1978 did result in the death of a young man, one who just happened to be there because his father wanted him to go and make sure his younger sister was safe. The anger of Birgit, whether we see footage of her being interviewed in the 1980s or ’90s or in the present day, is palpable. It’s not just that her brother died needlessly, but it seemed that Emanuele not only hid behind his diplomatic status and royal lineage, but he seems unrepentant about the incident. He would never admit to anything other than Dirk’s shooting being an accident, and seemed to not even consider himself culpable in the incident.
We wonder if Borromeo wants to communicate that not just through the interviews with Birgit Hamer and the other witnesses to that night 45 years ago, but through the interview with Emanuele himself. He tries to come off as a humble guy who never wanted to be King of Italy, but his manner tells us otherwise, like he’s thought for the last 77 years that his rightful place on the throne was stolen from him. The other two parts of the docuseries will take a deeper dive into his life, including later accusations of racketeering and corruption, that may bring that out more. But it’s not like Emanuele is doing himself any favors in this docuseries.
Sex and Skin: Nothing.
Parting Shot: During an archival interview, Emanuele is asked what he’d say to Dirk Hamer’s family. “I’m very sorry, but I don’t know if I did it.”
Sleeper Star: Without a doubt it’s Birgit Hamer, who has carried her brother’s death for 45 years and is pretty confident that Emanuele is responsible.
Most Pilot-y Line: It’s sort of refreshing, but also frightening, to see color video footage of all these young, vibrant people in 1978, then see them today as, well, people in their sixties and seventies. It has been 45 years after all, but what was refreshing was that all of them look like their ages.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Once you get past the fact that the docuseries seems to be about a petty dispute between two privileged parties, The King Who Never Was becomes a fascinating look at a man whose life never really recovered after his destiny was derailed when he was a kid.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.