Synopsis: Following a tragic accident, Joe (Colin Firth) decides to leave behind his home in the United States - which holds too many memories – in search of a new start. With hopes that the change of setting will help to pull his fractured family from the limbo of their bereavement, Joe relocates himself and his two young daughters to the exotic town of Genova, Italy, where he accepts a position teaching at the local university.As Joe rekindles an old friendship with university colleague Barbara (Catherine Keener), his daughters occupy their time by attending piano lessons and exploring the labyrinth-like laneways of the old city. 16-year-old Kelly (Willa Holland) finds herself drawn into the sexy and dangerous underbelly of this mysterious new world, speeding around on Vespas and partying with the local boys, while the younger Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine), who is most clearly struggling to move past her acute emotional pain, begins to have visions of her mother wandering the streets of the scenic northern Italian town.
Cinema's great investigator focuses on life in the shadow of death.
It’s been two years since Michael Winterbottom’s last film, the pungent emotional thriller A Mighty Heart, arrived in Australian cinemas, and frankly that’s a lifetime for a director whose curiosity is matched only by his prolific output. As it is Genova, a study of grief that eschews silent grieving for the flawed possibilities of life, is his 14th feature since 1995’s Butterfly Kiss took to England’s grim motorways. It’s an invigorating body of work, marking Winterbottom as the contemporary cinema’s great investigator, and would probably be celebrated more if Winterbottom didn’t perpetually move on (he currently has two further features in post-production).
Unlike the clean breaks that usually mark his films, Genova feels connected to A Mighty Heart. Both movies are about the time when lives stand still in the shadow of death. But where the earlier work drew tension from the hope that a kidnapped journalist might have survived, Winterbottom’s new film begins with the loss. Driving on an icy American freeway music teacher Marianne (Hope Davis) talks with her daughters, 16-year-old Kelly (Willa Ford) and 10-year-old Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine), in a scene that sets the story’s mood: the playfulness of life is only an impulsive moment away from tragedy. Laughing, Mary covers her mother’s eyes: fade to black, screaming as a collision occurs.
At the funeral you meet the now widowed Joe (Colin Firth), who has two daughters to raise. Firth, whose square, handsome face is just starting to lose the firmness of youth, holds his grief at a distance, partially out of British stoicism and partially to defer to the needs of his children. That’s a troubled equation and the movie explores what happens in the months afterwards when Joe, an academic, relocates his family to Genova, a port city in Italy’s north, to teach for a year.
As the studious Mary reports, Genoa was once the great rival to Venice as the Mediterranean’s mercantile power. In the same way Genova is a nod to Venice’s dreamy, violent cinematic history, of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers. The 16th century streets loom like canyons, looking like they could engulf these inhabitants of the New World at any turn.
In such surrounds, and despite the welcome of Joe’s former Harvard classmate Barbara (Catherine Keener), it’s not surprising that the family’s fractures begin to show even as they attempt to get on with their lives. “Some people can sense things,” was one of Marianne’s final observations to her daughters and it weighs on Mary, who begins to experience visions and make drawings of a figure that suggests her mother. Winterbottom doesn’t treat this as a supernatural event, refusing to make it the film’s defining element. Mary seeing her mother is as part of their individual lives as Joe’s flirtatious local student or Kelly’s blossoming into womanhood.
Falling in with an older group whose casual entreaties to her beauty she responds to, Kelly is exiting Joe’s grasp just as he’s most unsure about what to allow; Genova is concerned with domestic dynamics, be it father and skittish teenage daughter, or solemn adolescent and her mother’s ghost. American actress Willa Ford plays Kelly, and it’s difficult to see how her long-legged, catwalk-ready frame could be the result of Davis and Firth having a child, but Winterbottom doesn’t worship her Californian beauty. He looks beyond it, he considers how it’s her crutch. Riding on her boyfriend’s moped – the noise of passing trucks reminiscent of those in the opening scene – she’s both delighted and damaged (Kelly takes refuge in the physical, Mary the spiritual).
On an emotional level, Genova is a riveting thriller. The family is so expertly etched, and the nominally sunny milieu so atmospheric, that you know the film must end as it began, to provide an end stop to the family’s unspoken journey after Marianne’s death. Winterbottom’s take on grief is not as clear cut as most of his contemporaries would allow. As ever, he’s aware that life may supply a resolution, but it’s rarely the one you expect.
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