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A film that you have not seen in the theatre in North America. It premiered at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and disappeared until it emerged on DVD in April, 2012. A Summer in Genoa is a fine film that has slipped through the blockbuster-craving, profit-driven distribution network.

This is from Colin Firth’s pre-Oscar days, a performance that could well be a foreshadow of his Oscar nominated role in A Single Man a year later.

In A Summer in Genoa, Firth plays Joe, an English professor in Chicago who has lost his wife Marianne (Hope Davis) in a car accident. As father to teenager Kelly (Willa Holland) and her younger sister Mary (superbly played by then 10 year-old Perla Haney-Jardine), Joe has to lay aside his grief to continue with his family life in taking care of his daughters.

Five months after the accident, Joe’s old colleague Barbara (Catherine Keener) has lined up a teaching position for him in Genova, Italy. It is summer. The beautiful, historical seaside city will be a totally different scenery from Chicago. Joe thinks that could be a good change for all of them.

How does a family deal with loss? Here we see each person has to face it individually before coming together as a family.

Acclaimed director Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart, 2007) uses a naturalistic style to depict the three of them adjusting to a new situation in their own way. Through a hand-held camera, we are privy to the life of a family like watching a home video. As with any other family, their daily routine is ordinary and mundane. Yet because of their predicament, we care for these characters, especially with young Mary always drifting off on her own. We fear for her safety.

I’ve appreciated Winterbottom’s naturalism throughout the film, not only in the camera work, but with the ‘non-acting’ of the characters (using Bresson’s notion). They come across as real people dealing with daily issues we could relate to. On top of adjusting to a new city and nursing or ignoring a wound that has yet closed, a family still needs to go on living as a family.

We see Joe make breakfast for his girls, go to teach at the university, come home and make dinner. The girls go to their piano lessons, and Kelly takes her younger sister walking in long and narrow alleyways of the old city finding their way. We see Kelly making acquaintances with some young men, and how she riskily push the limits and attempt some youthful explorations. As for the younger Mary, we see her sorely locked in her solitary self of guilt and loss.

The young actor Perla Haney-Jardine’s performance as Mary is particularly poignant. With her father and older sister preoccupied with their own interests, she is left alone to deal with her private pain. She sees her mother appear to her, communicating to her with her presence and words.

The music selection is a major appeal to me. A film that starts off with the beginning theme of Chopin’s Etude no.3 and carries it as a motif throughout is sure to capture my attention. Music is also a legacy from their mother who used to teach piano at the university.

But I’m totally won over as this is read with a voiceover. A final class assignment Joe gives out to his students. He listens to the recording with them, his face lost in thought. It is so thematically perfect. As he ponders, he must have tasted the relevance of its words to his own predicament, raising his two daughters, through life’s ebb and flow. Here in this shot confirms Firth’s talent of ‘non-acting’.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held: 
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days; 
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

Special Features include equally naturalistic behind-the-scenes footage and cast interviews.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Another title for the film is Genova.

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