Movies about grief usually handle the subject matter with an intense gravity, oftentimes mistaking a heavy hand for profound meaning. So, it's with some surprise and relief that Summer in Genoa, Michael Winterbottom's 2008 film about a family moving on after tragedy, grapples with the broken hearts in a way that is surprisingly light for the viewer while somehow still giving the material its full emotional due.
Colin Firth stars in Summer in Genoa as Joe, a recently widowed father of two. The movie actually opens with the death of his wife (Hope Davis) in a car accident that also involves both of their girls, who come out with only a couple of scrapes. (Thankfully, Winterbottom keeps the actual crash off screen.) Feeling trapped in the old family apartment, Joe takes a job teaching in Italy for a year, beginning with a summer term. This gives his daughters a couple of months lounging around the Italian beaches and getting to know their new home before they have to start school. Elementary-aged Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) studies piano and draws, while her older sister Kelly (Willa Holland) gets up to a little teenaged rebellion, sneaking around with local kids and kissing boys. Mary is taking it harder, as it was her mistake that caused the accident, and so she has nightmares that break whatever calm the family can find and remind the others that they are mourning. She also thinks she sees her mother and communes with her in private.
Not that this is a ghost story. Winterbottom and co-writer Laurence Coriat (Wonderland) deal with the matter delicately. The implication is that while her father and sister endeavor to forget their pain, Mary is the one who is actively trying to remember her mother. Part of that is guilt, and part of it is just her way of dealing with the sadness. Most of the movie is the trio going about their business, getting on with things, shot in Winterbottom's usual loose, documentarian style. There are a lot of scenes of aimlessly wandering the back alleys of Genoa, with its hidden menaces and blind corridors. It's hard to tell when the girls are lost and when they know where they are going, a seemingly obvious yet somehow effective metaphor for their emotional turmoil.
Winterbottom, who made Summer in Genoa between his Angelina Jolie docudrama A Mighty Heart and the violently pulpy Killer Inside Me, pulls understated performances out of his actors. Firth has spent the last several years playing damaged men trapped by their own anxiety and depression, and he molds Joe with gentle sensibilities, focusing more on the day-to-day strength the professor musters than any lingering anguish--which makes sense, he has two youngsters to worry about. Both Haney-Jardine and Holland play to their age without overdoing it. They avoid the clichés of precocious smart girl and world-weary teen, and they strike a genuine rapport with all of their sibling bickering. Catherine Keener is also good as Joe's friend, an emotionally brittle woman who maybe still harbors feelings for her college crush. She is the only one that keeps bringing up the deceased. It's a well-meaning effort, she's trying to wrestle with what happened and ground her friends, but she doesn't know when to turn it off. Keener is so good, the rebuke she suffers actually makes for some of the saddest scenes in the film.
Eventually all the diverging excursions in Summer in Genoa must converge again, and without revealing too much, the film deftly brings the family back together in a very simple manner, creating an ending that is emotionally satisfying without pushing false sentiment. Winterbottom also leaves things a little open, suggesting in his final shots that maybe now that Joe's work with his daughters is complete, he can begin to focus on himself, that brave face starting to crumble ever so slightly as the summer sun fades.
English closed captioning is also offered.
There is also a theatrical trailer.