The only part of Genoa Judge Clark Douglas has experienced is the salami.
Where souls stir and spirits linger.
Based on the first 15-20 minutes of A Summer in Genoa, I began to suspect that director Michael Winterbottom had quietly released another unheralded gem. It opens with a memorable scene in which a woman named Marianne (Hope Davis, The Secret Lives of Dentists) is playing a game with her daughters Kelly (Willa Holland, The Middle of Nowhere) and Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine, Kill Bill: Volume 2) while driving them home. The daughters cover their eyes and try to guess the colors of the cars as they pass by. After a while, young Mary decides her mom needs to try the game, and covers Marianne's eyes with her hands. Unfortunately, this simple mistake leads to a car crash that takes Marianne's life.
Several months later, Mary and Kelly's father Joe (Colin Firth, A Single Man) takes the family to Genoa for the summer, where he's teaching a college course for a while. The atmosphere in the opening scenes is terrific, the sense of lingering grief is potent, and there's a remarkable measure of tension that suggests something terrible just around the corner.
And then, slowly but surely, the film begins to lose you. Well, maybe not you—many critics found A Summer in Genoa to be a spellbinding drama boasting a complete lack of cheap sentimentality and a screenplay that occasionally offered echoes of Don't Look Now—but it certainly began to lose me. Winterbottom's resume is a very diverse one indeed, and the reactions his films generate equally so. I found his The Killer Inside Me a fascinating slice of savage noir, but many critics dismissed it. Every film Winterbottom has made has earned high praise from some circles, but it's intriguing to note that his supporters and detractors seem to shift so dramatically from film to film.
Part of what makes A Summer in Genoa such a frustrating experience is that it actually does have some very admirable qualities. The aforementioned lack of sentimentality despite its heartbreaking subject matter is worth noting, but the problem is that Winterbottom hasn't provided anything interesting in the absence of clichéd melodrama. To be sure, the portrait of grief offered in the film is "realistic," but largely in the sense that there are a lot of moments in which nothing much happens and little insight is gained (just like real life!). This is a film which constantly threatens to reveal something very compelling indeed, but never delivers on that promise.
The minimalist story is divided into three strands for the three principle characters. Joe spends some time with his ex-girlfriend Barbara (Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich) and begins to develop feelings for one of his students. Kelly gets an opportunity to explore her blooming sexuality with a new boy toy. Mary's grief over her mother's death is compounded by the fact that she keeps seeing ghostly apparitions which look just like Marianne. The first two storylines don't really go anywhere interesting, while the third one actually does go somewhere interesting but is too badly-handled to work. Perhaps Winterbottom intended to be slippery and enigmatic about whether or not Mary is actually seeing a ghost, but instead he delivers a kinda-paranormal subplot which somehow feels as dreary and insignificant as everything else in the film.
The thin storytelling wouldn't really be a problem if the characters were well-drawn, but there's less to these people than to the film they inhabit. Colin Firth is a splendid actor and his portrait of restrained grief is technically solid, but the character is so underwritten that he doesn't have anywhere to go (contrast this performance to Matt Damon's far more memorable turn in Hereafter, in which Clint Eastwood gave Damon's muted grief something compelling to play against). Firth plays his simple melody well, but he can't carry the film if the film doesn't give him anything to carry. Willa Holland is similarly forgettable as Kelly, while the film prevents Perla Haney-Jardine's more explicit (and admittedly moving) portrait of childlike heartache and terror from having the impact it ought to.
The DVD transfer is mediocre (as so many IFC Films transfers are), offering poor detail and murky nighttime sequences. It's worth noting that the film is actually kind of ugly on a visual level, making poor use of the Genoa setting. It's not quite an eyesore, but it's awfully drab. Audio is a bit better, with an engaging soundtrack (including an piano-driven score and plenty of classical selections) blending well with the dialogue. A few lines sound a little muffled, though. Extras are limited to some brief cast and crew interviews (21 minutes) and a collection of behind-the-scenes footage (7 minutes).
I appreciate that the film is aiming for understated subtlety, but what it actually delivers is an empty cinematic experience. There are glimmers of quality, but these elements only serve to remind us that the film is being made by a man capable of far better.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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