Colin Firth’s character sums up A Summer in Genoa quite neatly about half way through the film. Over a glass of wine, his friend Barbara (Catherine Keener) is trying to get him to open up about the tragedy that he and his daughters, Kelly (Willa Holland) and Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine), have lived through. “You’re all very brave,” she tells him. Firth responds curtly: “We don’t have much choice.”
Like Rabbit Hole, A Summer in Genoa begins with a family tragedy and traces its aftermath. Firth plays Joe, a professor who loses his wife, Marianne, in a tragic car accident. We witness that accident in the first scene of the film. Marianne is driving, with Kelly and Mary in the back. We watch the two girls play a game where they cover each other’s eyes and try to guess what color car has just passed them on the other side of the highway. Mary, over-excited by the game, suddenly playfully covers her mom’s eyes. Next thing we hear are screeching tires. Next thing we see is Mary waking up sobbing in the middle of the night, crying for her mother.
Joe decides to transplant the family to Genoa for a year, where he will teach at the university and the girls will take piano lessons and do a year of school. Mostly, though, the move sets up the escapism that underlies all three characters’ response to Marianne’s death. Co-writer and director Michael Winterbottom wonderfully lets the tragedy linger in the back of the plot while, for the most part, each character tries to forget it as much as possible.
Joe jumps into his teaching job, bonding with his students, taking his daughters to the beach, learning to cook new meals. “This is a voyage of discovery for me,” he tells his daughters. Kelly quickly finds a boyfriend, begins to go out every night, and generally embraces the flattering attention she gets from Italian men. Only Mary, who carries the most explicit guilt after the accident, cannot pretend to forget. Instead, she does as much as possible to pretend that her mother is not gone. She begins to have visions of Marianne, one time even getting lost in the woods after following her.
For the audience, meanwhile, the tragedy is constantly present. Every car or Vespa ride and every walk through the confusing Genoa alleys gets heightened awareness. One early tragedy, it would seem, can only be there to presage another. Mostly, the heightened tension that Winterbottom creates is achieved through skillful pacing. Because the full effects of Marianne’s death take so long to bubble over and be expressed by the characters, the audience sits in anxious agony. Mary wakes up night after night crying for her mother, and Joe patiently consoles her. Yet every morning after, they continue on without an extra word. How long can this family continue, we ask ourselves, to not talk through the incident, to not realize how little Mary has worked through what happened?
Even when, two-thirds of the way through the film, the tensions produced by Marianne’s death become increasingly evident, they never show themselves in overwrought, melodramatic explosions of feelings. Colin Firth’s wonderfully understated performance (he is better here than in The King’s Speech) reveals Joe to be a loving father who nevertheless cannot personally bring himself to talk about the tragedy.
Firth’s performance is matched by how Kelly and Mary’s terse relationship is played out. In an ice-cream parlor, almost in passing, a frustrated Kelly finally lets out her anger at Mary. “This is all her fault,” she yells at Joe, only to be scolded for having sworn while Mary slides off to the washroom. A later scene, where things come to head between the two and Kelly threatens to ruin Mary’s life “just like you ruined mine,” is quickly followed by a calm family dinner. From time to time Winterbottom does raise the emotional level and reveals the scars left by Marianne’s death, but he always slides back right after, leaving the audience with no sense, even at the end of the film, that Marianne’s death will ever be fully overcome or dealt with.
What Winterbottom shows us are three lives that cannot help but be affected by such a tragic event, but which nevertheless are forced to continue in their banal everydayness. In such a case, the act of escape seems not only desirable but even somewhat necessary. A Summer in Genoa profiles the perhaps discomforting truth that, although a tragedy like the one we see in the film can seem to affect everything that comes after, it cannot in reality be on one’s mind “every hour of every day, every day of every month, every month of every year, every year of every decade, every decade of every century, and every century of every millennium,” as Mary seems to demand of her dad. Life takes over soon enough, and the tragedy is suddenly brought to mind only every so often, and talked about even less. Winterbottom delivers this message gracefully, though, without once taking the tragedy, influence, and emotional effect of Marianne’s death too lightly.
There are, of course, some flaws. Notably, Catherine Keener’s talents are wasted on a character that never has her role fully asserted and gets lost in the story. And as a DVD release, the extras provided are limited, although the interviews with the cast and crew are relatively extensive and interesting. Yet considering the movie did the film festival circuit back in 2008, we ought to just be thankful that it has finally made it over for wide release in North America.
Note: This movie was originally shown in theaters with the title Genova.