Serially chameleonic Brit auteur Michael Winterbottom continues his sojourning ways with “Genova,” even as its tale of familial loss and grief seems a deliberate extension of — and chance to improve upon — the director’s “A Mighty Heart.” Here, the titular Italian town shares top billing with Colin Firth as a bereaved husband, with two highly affecting young actresses as his resilient daughters, the smaller of whom periodically sees Mom (Hope Davis) as a ghost. Pic’s strengths as a ’50s Euro-style meller paradoxically make “Genova” a somewhat iffy proposition for Stateside release.
Co-written by Winterbottom and his “Wonderland” collaborator Laurence Coriat, the beautifully lensed film opens with the auto-accident death of Marianne (Davis), steering through snowy Illinois terrain with kids Kelly (Willa Holland) and Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) in tow and Chopin on the soundtrack. Familiarity of the story and ostensible ease of heartstring pulls are undercut early with a pair of harrowing scenes set in the immediate aftermath.
Five months later, English widower Joe (Firth), stoic and capable to the point of seeming almost relieved to be a single parent, brings the kids along to his yearlong university teaching gig in Genova, memorably described in the dialogue as having once been the world’s richest city.
Bulk of the pic, which feels long at a mere 93 minutes, is set during summer, when the visiting prof’s potential love interests include flirtatious, white-hot student Rosa (Margherita Romeo) and the chilly Barbara (Catherine Keener, boldly and brilliantly unlikable), his former classmate (and possible g.f.) at Harvard.
Rebellious Kelly stays out late, riding drunkenly on the back of a fast boyfriend’s scooter, while Mary begins to believe Mom’s spectral visitations are intended to forgive the girl for having played a distracting variant of patty-cake just before the crash. Dad’s dubious gift for emotional repression begins to fail him when Mary goes missing in the woods.
“Genova” conveys its strongest themes through insinuation, and modulates its shifting moods through Winterbottom’s precisely calibrated DV processing. As the loose, episodic narrative occasionally strains patience, Kelly’s omnipresent iPod enables periodic pop (and signifies the sad-eyed girl’s escapist tendencies). Still, despite its contempo elements, the film carries faint intimations of Rossellini’s masterful “Voyage to Italy,” as the burdensome weight of the past, represented in the brick and mortar of old Italy itself, bears on family members vacationing under stress.
Among solid tech contributions, the counterintuitively fast-paced editing by Paul Monaghan and Winterbottom stands out, particularly in tense scenes at the film’s start and finish. Intelligent young Haney-Jardine, already unforgettable as Beatrix Kiddo’s daughter in “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” delivers the pic’s most indelible perf, impressively approximating Davis’ voice by way of conveying both genetic influence and the kid’s heartbreaking desire to keep Mom’s spirit alive.