Genova (2008) dir. Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Colin Firth, Catherine Keener, Willa Holland, Perla Haney-Jardine, Hope Davis
Michael Winterbottom’s latest film tells a grim story of a family dealing with the death of their mother. Winterbottom adequately applies his on-location immersion modus operandi to this film, but the grim material is missing a spark of optimism to keep its audience from drowning in excessive grief.
The opening scene is played out with ominous tension. Winterbottom shows the tragic car accident which takes the life of devoted mother and wife (Hope Davis) to Joe (Colin Firth) and his two daughters Kelly (Willa Holland) and Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine). After the funeral, Joe decides to uproot the kids and move them to Genova Italy where he has been offered a teaching job.
Once in Italy, it’s culture shock for the kids. Kelly is a typical teenager and thus despises having to hang around her father and her pre-teen sister. At every opportunity she abandons Mary and Joe to exercise her burgeoning sexuality with local Italian boys. Mary, the youngest, is having the most difficulty with the loss. Her only method of coping is her waking visions of her ghostly mother which keeps her safe when alone. Catherine Keener plays Joe’s friend who guides them around the city and acts as their surrogate mother. Unfortunately for the family the city of Genova acts as both an enabler and an inhibiter to the grieving process.
Winterbottom and his crew appeared to have had a wonderful time filming the movie. The location is stunning and serves as a great promotional piece for Genovese tourism. Marcel Zyskind, Winterbottom’s frequent collaborator lenses the film with a light and mobile handheld digital camera. While the colours becomes muted by the video-ness of the image, the camera is free to move covertly through the public streets interacting with real live Italian pedestrians.
At times the documentary-like location shooting can feel self-conscious and draw attention to itself. Winterbottom, listed as a co-editor, often cuts randomly to locals in the background who seem unaware they’re being filmed. While it’s authentic, it’s also an obviously attempt to be authentic, when authenticity isn’t required.
The heart of the story is how each of the family members deals with the mother’s death. Kelly’s coming-of-age story is the most accessible because it’s structured with a traditional and familiar character arc. Unlike some of his other films, Winterbottom keeps the content PG13. Some tasteful skin is flashed, just enough to remind us of those days of innocent love and sexual discovery. Both Joe and Mary are characterized with less completeness. Joe ‘reacts’ more than ‘acts’. Once he’s in Genova he’s a passive character and does nothing to advance the story. Mary drives the film. All the tension and action is motivated by her decisions. But Mary serves more as a device than a developing character.
Winterbottom crafts only a couple of ‘cinematic’ set-piece scenes of danger – both involve Mary getting lost. The finale is a contrived conversion of the three characters. It’s a clichéd scene, which we’ve seen in a number of Hollywood genre films. Though it seems out of place for Winterbottom’s free-form techniques, I certainly welcomed the satisfying suspenseful climax.
“Genova” frustrates because Winterbottom never adequately defines his characters’ goals and instead lingers too long with the grief. I’m still questioning if it’s a coming of age story, or a thriller, or an art house mood film. It’s all and none of the above. Whatever it is, we desperate need a spark of optimism, even a dash of what Danny Boyle supplied us with in “Slumdog Millionaire”.