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cast: Colin Firth, Catherine Keener, Willa Holland, Hope Davis, and Perla Haney-Jardine

director: Michael Winterbottom

94 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
While initially presenting itself as a film about grief and loss, Michael Winterbottom's Genova is a film that actually asks a much more fine-grained question. Namely, what is a family? Is it simply a group of related people sharing the same living space or is there some magical configuration of emotional dispositions that transforms a 'group' into something else? Once achieved, can this configuration then be destabilised by the loss of one member of a group? How does a family stop being a family? Despite the film's unnecessarily up-beat ending, Winterbottom's thoughts on the matter prove to be quite interesting.

Following the loss of his wife in a car accident, Joe (Colin Firth) decides to spend a year in Italy in the hope that a change of scene and immersion in a foreign culture might help him and his daughters escape their shared grief. However, stripped of the unifying presence of a mother, the family starts to drift apart the second it arrives in Italy. Joe, equipped with a British stiff upper-lip and tendency to internalise his problems, deals with his grief by throwing himself into his work and his social life. Dragging his daughters to dull receptions and days out as he half-heartedly fends off the romantic intentions of one of his students and his pushy friend Barbara (who clearly sees herself as a replacement mother for the girls). Meanwhile, skinny teenaged glamour-puss Kelly (Willa Holland) discovers her sexuality and starts sneaking off to spend time with the local sun-tanned and scooter-driving boys. This leaves precociously introverted youngest daughter Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) very much to her own devices and before long she starts seeing the ghost of her mother. A ghost who initially seems benign but who then reveals herself as quite intent upon dragging Mary away from her family.

Whether they are films, plays, books or songs, most artistic renderings of human events tend to focus upon larger-than-life goings on: big moments of emotion such as betrayal, abuse, violence, madness hatred and passion. The reason for this is because these big moments provide more emotional force and they allow relationships to fit into a more simplistic topography of endless valleys and peaks. Genova, in contrast, keeps its focus resolutely upon the plateaux and plains. Indeed, its principle narrative success lies in its simple depiction of the forces of entropy acting upon a family unit: having lost one member, Joe's family drifts apart without intent and without anyone being particularly to blame.

Joe and Kelly are absorbed by their new social lives but neither is intentionally pulling away from the family and neither is particularly resentful or malicious. Indeed, the closest the piece comes to a villain is the petulant Kelly but The OC alumnus Holland does a wonderful job of making sure that she remains a sympathetic character despite her occasionally harsh words towards her younger sister. In fact, Kelly is as much a victim of the death of her mother as Mary. Joe is a devoted father who clearly cares deeply about his girls but he is too emotionally repressed to want to confront the practical realities of having lost a wife and mother. It simply never occurs to him to hire a babysitter and he dumps Mary on Kelly without thinking about the fact that Kelly is a 16-year-old girl with her own problems and her own lessons to learn. The supernatural or possibly hallucinatory appearance of the mother symbolically captures the group's failure to move forward and adapt emotionally and practically: Mary is so alone and so attached to the memories of her mother that she is lured away from her family both emotionally and literally.

This refusal to take responsibility for change is also addressed in a more head-on fashion during Joe's teaching sessions where he discusses the evolving sense of Italian identity. His students tell him not only that people can have more than one identity but also that the meaning of different identities can evolve over time. Clearly, this is what is happening to Joe's family. Joe has failed to realise that, as well as being his daughter and a sister, Kelly is a growing woman and that his former role as bread-winner must now change so as to take on the increased responsibilities of being a single parent.

The film's sense of emotional displacement is particularly well captured by Genova's visuals. Winterbottom reprises the docudrama style he used so efficiently in The Road To Guantanamo (2006), to create a film that looks very much like the kind of home movie you might make while visiting Italy. The use of Genoa as a setting is particularly inspired as it is not a cinematic location that has been filmed particularly often. Had the film been set in Rome or Venice then the audience would immediately have felt partly at home but, by setting the film in a strange city, Winterbottom ensures that the audience is as lost as Joe's family. Genoa is a city full of narrow streets and strange alleyways filled with frequently odd people. When the girls try to find their way back home they are forever wandering through red light districts and stumbling upon quite aggressive or strange-looking locals. Even when the cinematography steps out of the old town, Winterbottom presents Genoa as a city of interchangeable beaches, incomprehensible public transport systems and landmarks seen out of the corner of the eye whilst being driven around on the back of a scooter.

Because of Winterbottom's commitment to emotional documentary realism, Genova is not an emotionally engaging film. We understand the problems of Joe's family but we are not gripped by them and we do not feel for the characters. As artistic objects they demand analysis, not empathy. This makes watching Genova a rather flat experience, which is undeniably problematic for a filmed drama. The big dramatic ending seems to be an attempt to address this problem but its up-beat tone and action-film pacing are utterly incongruous with the patient and analytical timbre of the rest of the film.

The DVD comes with a couple of moderately interesting short documentaries in which people discuss the characters and the ways in which the film was shot as well as recordings of the original score by Melissa Parmenter.

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