On the surface The Boys are Back and Genova are both films are about men who lose their wives in tragic circumstances and have to cope with being a single parent to two children. However, I’ve been trying to work out the differences between the films which meant that I gave The Boys are Back a NOT and am giving Genova a HOT.

At first I thought it might just be the romantic Italian setting and reminisces of my focaccia-hunting trip to Genova earlier this year.  On reflection, I think it’s because the protagonists in Genova are actually the two girls, 10 year old Mary and 16 year old Kelly, whereas their father (Colin Firth) is actually a bit of a blank page in so far as his reactions to his wife’s death. You never see him cry, or dream, or rage – he just comforts his daughters as best that he can and tries to help them adapt to Italian life, living in the crowded alleys of the old quarter and taking trips to the nearby beaches.

Perla Haney-Jardine gives a convincing and heart-wrenching performance as the younger daughter. Mary is the most interesting character, because in effect she caused her mother’s car accident and feels intense guilt. She has constant nightmares and her screaming sobs for her mother are distressing to watch. Although I had dissed the hallucinations in The Boys are Back, I did believe that a 10 year old girl would yearn for her dead mother so much that she would follow visions of her mother over a mountain or across a freeway.

Beautiful Kelly (Willa Holland) is on the cusp of adulthood when her foundations are ripped away. After the trauma of her mother’s death, she has to rediscover her own boundaries and values, and ends up keeping up with a fast crowd, stealing away to be with the drug-smoking teenagers she meets on the beach.  She chooses to forget her memories as best as she can, and when she rides behind her Italian boyfriend on his vespa she shuts her eyes and blanks her mind, engulfed by the sounds of whooshing traffic and the sea.

The city of Genova provides not just the backdrop but is a symbol of the family’s mourning process. At first they are constantly lost in the winding streets of the old town, feeling their away around the dark shadows and suddenly rearing up to unexpected dead ends. Their sense of dislocation and confusion is not only physical; it is emotional. By the end of the film, the girls are heading back to school, nervously anticipating a fresh start and the beginning of new friendships and lessons.

Genova is a beautiful and understated film from Michael Winterbottom about loss, grief and love. All the performances are convincing and the city provides the perfect metaphor for the characters’ process of rebuilding a life after tragedy.