As the saying goes, sometimes bad things happen to good people. In the case of A Summer In Genoa (2008), the good people are an American family, and the bad thing is a car crash that the two daughters survive but the mother does not. The closest reference point is The Son’s Room (2001), the Italian Palme d’Or winner that beautifully, lyrically shows that in the face of tragedy, life goes on. A Summer In Genoa shows that life goes on, but not very easily, beginning with a move to Italy for the summer. The father looks for answers in other women while trying to raise his children; the younger daughter is consumed by guilt and looks for forgiveness; the teenage daughter hopes that sex and the city can give her some peace of mind. Because this is a Michael Winterbottom film, music, in the form of piano lessons (which the deceased mother taught) are the closest thing to common ground.
Like the characters, the camera is also looking for answers. Winterbottom rarely opts for a static shot, and we get the sense that somewhere in the beautiful city of Genoa, perhaps in the tall dark alleys, or maybe in the beaches that its people so conformingly gather at, the camera—with a wider lens, of course, to maximize visibility—might find the answer. During the climactic scene of trying to cross the street, the camera suddenly tightens up, locking in on the family, revealing the answer to be what we always knew it would be.
Genova (as it is called outside the U.S.), is my third Winterbottom film, after 24 Hour Party People (2002) and 9 Songs (2004). 9 Songs was a quietly ambitious but empty experiment and 24 Hour Party People was a successfully self-conscious biopic. With Genova, Winterbottom, who also co-wrote and co-edited, must have known he could create something moving, even if his script was a bit shy on character development. What’s important is that each character is distinct, trying to deal with the same tragedy in their distinct ways, and Winterbottom’s extensive use of cross-cutting perfectly demonstrates that even when they are miles apart, they are still so close. One moment we’ll see the older daughter, Kelly (Willa Holland) meet up with her boyfriend, and the next we are back to the younger Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine, who would be fantastic even if she were not 10 at the time) playing piano, or perhaps their father (Colin Firth) struggling with how to respond to one of his students asking him to coffee or lunch.
The cinematography may be what makes the film so beautiful, but it is those actors who are the pillar that make everything possible. There are only hints in the script that each is still haunted, five months later. Kelly threatens to ruin Mary’s life “like you ruined mine,” and Mary will occasionally talk about her mother while lighting candles for the dead with her father’s primary suitor Barbara (Catherine Keener), but there is no airing of grievances, nobody ever assigns blame to anyone else. Kelly and Mary corner Joe about his almost-girlfriends, but the mother is not mentioned. Barring these guiding hands, grief and defense mechanisms are supplied entirely by the nuanced, realistic performances. There is a moment when the two daughters play piano for their father and Barbara after a month or so of lessons. It is a Chopin piece, a major contrast to Kelly’s rock and roll escapism, and it is the only thing beautiful enough to visibly unite the family.
There is a ghost in this movie, as we knew there would be as soon as Mary she sees her mother sometimes. The ghost is a director’s conceit, one designed to bring about the collective realization at the end, but it is an effective conceit. After an hour and a half of searching, with the camera and the characters, of watching Joe and Barbara distract themselves and others with ideas of Italian culture, of sympathizing with Mary’s hidden guilt, and of feeling sorry for the escapist Kelly, we can’t help but share the unspoken realization they all come to, even if it we did see it coming. A Summer In Genoa is a slow film, one that throws us a couple too many bones, but thanks to a directorial triumph in which style becomes substance, it is also a great film.