Review: Vitus

Child prodigy must choose between a normal adolescence and a career as a classical pianist. Low-key drama is a beguiling treat.

On the surface a routine family melodrama about the conflicts between a gifted child and his demanding parents, Vitus is actually a lot more interesting, and challenging, than its premise suggests. Swiss director Fredi M. Murer touches on the standard elements of a prodigy story, but is after much bigger game than a movie-of-the-week morality tale. There are many ways to interpret what happens in Vitus, all of them worthwhile, most of them troubling.

No one disputes that six-year-old Vitus von Holzen (Fabrizio Borsani) is an outstanding pianist. But he is reluctant to perform in public, preferring to spend time with his daydreaming grandfather (Bruno Ganz), a cabinetmaker on the verge of bankruptcy. Vitus’s father Leo (Urs Jucker) is too preoccupied with his telecommunications work to offer much advice to his son. Helen (Julika Jenkins) fills in the vacuum, quitting her job to plot her son’s future.

Vitus understandably rebels against a regimen of daily piano practice, of classes filled with older students, of Helen’s fear that he might injure himself with sports or rough-housing. When he is twelve, Vitus (now played by real-life prodigy Teo Gheorghiu) stages an accident that changes the rules. A head injury apparently removes his musical abilities. As a result, he is now allowed to play with children his own age, while his mother struggles with reduced expectations and growing bills.

It would be easy Murer to wrap up Vitus with a moral along the lines of, “It’s hard to be a child genius.” But the director understands and respects his characters too much to offer easy solutions. Leo may be an inattentive father, but he senses what is best for his son, and shares a warm relationship with him. Helen may be pushing Vitus too hard, but recognizes that she has a responsibility to develop his talents. And Vitus may be manipulative, deceitful, even vindictive, but he is also fighting for his life.

“What is a paradox?” the six-year-old asks his parents. As Murer shows, learning what something means and knowing how to cope with it are two different things. With an adult’s talents and a child’s emotions, Vitus is a walking paradox, and his efforts to find a balance between innocence and knowledge leads him to several damaging mistakes. Murer elicits a moving, assured performance from the young Borsani, while Gheorghiu displays an engaging personality and enormous musical skills. Ganz, the emotional center of the story, is effortlessly brilliant, while Jenkins and Jucker are both excellent in difficult roles.

Murer’s refusal to judge his characters has led some critics to dismiss Vitus’s role as a high-toned cross between a bad seed and Ferris Bueller. But if you are willing to take the time, Vitus can be a rewarding, if low-key, experience. Graced by an exceptional soundtrack, and with a surprisingly wide-ranging canvas, it easily transcends the “family film” genre.
Cast: Teo Gheorghiu, Fabrizio Borsani, Julika Jenkins, Urs Jucker, Bruno Ganz, Eleni Haupt, Tamara Scarpellini, Kristina Lykowa, Daniel Rohr, Norbert Schwientek, Heidy Forster, Daniel Fueter, Livia S. Reinhard, Susanne Kunz, Ursula Reiter.

Credits: Directed by Fredi M. Murer. Screenplay by Peter Luisi, Fredi M. Murer, Lukas B. Suter. Produced by Christian Davi, Christof Neracher, Fredi M. Murer. Director of photography: Pio Corradi. Set designer: Susanne Jauch. Costume designer: Sabine Murer. Edited by Myriam Flury. Music by Mario Beretta. Sound: Hugo Poletti. An FFM and Hugofim presentation of a Vitusfilm production. In German with English subtitles.

Sony Pictures Classics/Color/1.85/Dolby Digital/122 Mins./Rated PG

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