Winterbottom fires the film’s ignition in its tense opening scenes: a young American mother (Hope Davis) is driving in winter when she suffers an accident which kills her. Left behind are husband Joe (Colin Firth, below) and two girls, 16-year-old Kelly (Willa Holland) and ten-year-old Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine). Once the funeral and five months have passed, the family opt to move to Italy, where Joe will teach at the same university as Barbara (Catherine Keener), an old friend from years back. New country, new city, new start – as announced by the trumpeting sound over the opening credits of Georges Delerue’s ‘Grand Choral’ and the sight of dazzling aerial shots of Genova: Truffaut meets Google Earth.
The city in the searing heat of summer becomes a backdrop for an energetic examination of grief and renewal as each of the trio negotiates a new life with the memory of the old one fresh in the mind. We dash about the city, sucking in every alley and remote corner. Education touches them all: a sexual one for Kelly, whose hormones go loopy at the sight of Mediterranean boys, piano lessons for both girls and open discussions between Joe and his students – perhaps the film’s weakest episodes – about the Italian national character (‘Has the euro had any impact on a sense of Italian identity?’ he asks. Thankfully, Winterbottom doesn’t linger too long here.)
Three strong performances, with Firth as a sensitive lynchpin, reinforce the tenderness of the father-daughter relationship. But Winterbottom is also interested in what keeps us apart and he explores those areas even a loving parent can’t reach: young Mary screams out at night and sees her dead mother in windows and on the streets, while Kelly finds comfort in a boyfriend. Her blossoming sexuality puts a similar distance between her and her younger sister. Meanwhile, Joe puts up his own barriers: he’ll only let Barbara and a young student admirer so close before clamming up and raising his defences.
Laurence Coriat, the director’s co-writer on this film, also scripted ‘Wonderland’ and again their work together has produced a film in which the city’s texture and the emotions of its characters are at one. Comparisons have been made with ‘Don’t Look Now’, but that’s a bit misleading: this isn’t a supernatural story, even if Mary does ‘see’ her mother. Yet what ‘Genova’ does share with Nic Roeg’s film is an awareness of how claustrophobic – and liberating – it can be to mix a strange city with devastating loss. It’s at once a deeply sad film and a deeply truthful and optimistic one.