aka Summer in Genoa
Reviewed in October 2008
Director: Michael Winterbottom. Cast: Colin Firth, Willa Holland, Perla Haney-Jardine, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Alessandro Giuggioli. Screenplay: Laurence Coriat and Michael Winterbottom
Twitter Capsule: Unclear why Winterbottom wanted to redo Don't Look Now but less ambitiously, with dangling ghost threads

Photo © 2008 Revolution Films/Aramid Entertainment
Michael Winterbottom's Genova is not called Venezia, and in that way, that one way, the movie doesn't race toward every obvious cliché about soulsick Europeans with the misguided notion that a respite in Italy will soothe their psyches. Poor fools! Why not just rattle a chain and beg the ghosts to follow you? Precisely no one will be surprised when the knotty alleys of Genova—or of Genoa, to those of us raised on U.S. geography textbooks—work double-time as a convenient and obvious analogue for the emotional daze and twisty relations among Colin Firth's Joe and his two daughters, teenaged Kelly (Willa Holland) and 10-year-old Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine). All of them are reeling from the loss of wife and mother Marianne (Hope Davis), who died in a car accident when Mary, being playful, slapped her hands over Mom's eyes while she was driving. As often happens in movies about grief, one of the most credible statements in the movie is made by the very character whom the film is eager to "heal." That's little Mary, who tells her dad's friend Barbara (Catherine Keener) that it's her own fault her mother died. She also mentions that Mom has been "visiting" her in order to forgive her, and while there's no question that Mary is suffering awfully under this weight of guilt (and of course she did not kill her mother), it's awfully evasive of the movie to raise these kinds of issues, even to haul Mom in for some wispy bedside lurking, and not allow her to blame her daughter just a bit amid these visitations—which would help to explain why Mary, who idealizes her mother, is so assured of her own blame.

Instead, Genova settles for all the conventional harmonic lines: Dad's loneliness and his hankering for companionship, the boiling resentment of the elder daughter, the casual heartlessness of her beachcomber boyfriends, the macabre drawings by the younger tot (which exist so that Dad plus Winterbottom's camera can find them in a drawer and pore worriedly over them), the awkward mix of pity and desire radiated by Dad's unmarried gal pal, the seasick tilts of the camera up the steep canyon-walls of the Genova streets, the smashing of glass for gratuitous accents of peril, the creamy-spooky light of the candles on church altars, the outbreak of panic when one of the girls goes missing, the screams in the night of the daughter who misses her Mom. Winterbottom, working as ever with cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, is so comfy with his handheld, restive, guerrilla style of filmmaking that Genova never feels inauthentic, and however hackneyed these story beats have become, I hardly doubt that this is how intense mourning must feel, especially when it's simultaneous with such a sudden relocation, optimistic but so obviously desperate and insufficient. I don't think Genova gets anything wrong, at least not anything big, but it's odd that Winterbottom is so uncharacteristically content to be "right" in just the same way that scads of other stories and films have been "right" about such standard-issue material. He can't quite decide which well-trodden path to walk, either of domestic drama or supernatural riddle, which should have been a sign that he hasn't really committed to this project, which may be a perfectly sensible response to the script he's co-written.

While he shuffles uneasily between these two generic alternatives—making interesting but fruitless feints like those depersonalized point-of-view shots that spy on teenaged Kelly from outside her bedroom window—he lets the movie wander well away from him, while Catherine Keener spouts some floaty little nuggets about Genovese history and ecclesiastical architecture. Colin Firth gets nowhere with or into Joe, who notches yet another entry on the long and weary roster of ridiculous Movieland professors: he asks his seminar one day to reflect on the impact of the Euro on Italian culture, and the next day has them listen to a Shakespearean sonnet and free-write their reactions. No one clocks the distressing but escalating thinness of Big Sis, nothing comes of the film's wavering interest in Chopin or in Catholic annunciations, and no one stops to ask how much of Kelly's bitterness and discomfort is born of losing her mother and how much is born of being sixteen. Genova works best when the profound and terrible suffering of this family gets strained through a cold, almost mundane colander of what most families with growing children endure, but Winterbottom hasn't thought to root his film within that nervous space. Meanwhile, on the production side, no one sees anything wrong with continually baiting young Mary into full-speed traffic, stoking the audience to expect her tiny body to get strewn all over the strada at any moment. The paranormal element is so willy-nilly that even Kelly is credited with something like "second sight," though it never matters after the intro, and while costumes and sound cues are occasionally quite vivid (black bikinis, harsh cicadas), they are quickly recuperated, just like everything else, into flat sequences and predictable logics.

Genova is a pulp-magazine story that you'd contentedly finish reading—it's never off-putting or incompetent—but you'd find yourself rewriting it continually in your head, giving Joe better ways to telegraph his suppressed despair than by chopping green beans at obtuse, inefficient angles or by showing us the Elizabeth Berkley-in-Showgirls freestyle when he finally takes a dip in the Italian sea. Genova is the only Winterbottom movie I've seen that I'd have to call mediocre; devoted readers will know that he's something of a hero to me. Taking a cue from the movie, I'm happy to silence my questions and extend a blanket of forgiveness, and besides, if I know Mike, the silver lining here is that if I give him another month or two, he's sure to release something else. Grade: C

VOR: (1)   (What is this?)
I can appreciate if Winterbottom was interested to see if the excruciating tension he has brought to the filming of period townships (The Claim, Jude) or, even more memorably, of non-Western cities of our own era (In This World, A Mighty Heart) or the next (Code 46) could be adapted to an old world haunt like Geno(v)a. I can also appreciate if he watched Don't Look Now recently and wondered if he could pull off something similar, despite being a rhythmically, politically, and temperamentally different director from Nicolas Roeg. These might have seemed like useful experiments for him, but they just don't take flight as concepts worth basing a movie around, and the execution feels tentative, even a bit rote: like he's realized that Genova isn't paying the kinds of dividends he'd hoped even while he was filming it. So, while the movie isn't bad, I really can't recommend that anyone go out of their way to see it.

Permalink Home 2010 ABC Blog E-Mail