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‘Vitus’

The gift of genius costs its young owners plenty

by Kaori Shoji

How does the world (and a parent in particular) deal with a child prodigy? Though Swiss film “Vitus (Boku no Piano Concerto)” doesn’t provide any definite answers, it parts the curtains on the mystery, letting us share a little in the experience of getting to know and learning to love an incredibly gifted child.

Veteran Swiss filmmaker Fredi M. Murer is well-known for making movies with children in the lead roles, and his stance toward his young charges has always been one of respect and professionalism, tinged with camaraderie. He seems to understand children and their world without feeling the need for fascination, exploitation or protectiveness. In his stories, children are allowed to keep the essence of themselves firmly intact, whether they’re in a film about abduction (“Vollmond”) or brother-sister incest (“Alpine Fire”).

There’s a strange serenity to it all that makes you wonder whether it’s Murer or the Swiss temperament — if there’s a storm brewing beneath all that calm, the director always has it well under control.

The same goes for Murer’s latest film, “Vitus,” a sometimes humorous, nonjudgmental film about a little boy who could play Lizst at the age of 6, has an IQ of 180 and reads encyclopedias for entertainment. Murer recruited real prodigies for the title role: Vitus at 6 is played by angel-faced piano genius Fabrizio Borsani and at 12 by full-fledged piano-meister Theo Gheorgiu. To witness their gift at work is a privilege, though to see them acting out the daily life and routines of a prodigy is a little painful.

A similar dilemma is at the core of “Vitus.” Everyone is happy to listen to the boy play, and they applaud when the music finished. But when it comes to simply talking or spending time with him, they freak out or politely walk away. In one scene, a friend of Vitus’ parents says, “So you have a genius for a son. I offer my sympathies because things will get very difficult for you.” While his mother initially puts this down to envy, even then her face is full of uneasiness.

Thankfully for Vitus, his parents aren’t the stereotypical prodigy-spawners who get hysterical over an untuned piano or a missed lesson. Still, it’s touch-and-go with his mother, Helen (Julika Jenkins), who makes the boy’s life pretty miserable with her meddling and controlling. When she hires dark-haired 12-year-old baby sitter Isabel (Kristina Lykowa) to look after Vitus during the evening, she silences his protests (“But I’m not a baby!”) by telling him to think of her as a girlfriend. He does just that, and one night the pair have a roaring good time by opening a bottle of champagne and staging a make-believe rock concert in the living room. When Helen and Leo come home to find the kids drunk and asleep on the couch, Isabel is fired on the spot. Helen quits her job to supervise all of Vitus’ waking hours and enrolls him in junior high since the boy is clearly too precocious to associate with kids his own age. The only time Vitus feels free is in the presence of his grandfather (a splendid Bruno Ganz), a rumpled furniture-maker who lives in the country, has no money and treats Vitus like a best friend. Helen never intrudes into their time together and understands that the boy might break if she deprived him of his grandfather.

At 12, Vitus is humorless and taciturn, going to high school dressed in shirts and ties that his mother picks out (understandably, he’s nicknamed Freak-O). Classes bore him, he has no friends and his grandfather isn’t doing too well. To protect himself from the world, his mother — and quite possibly himself — Vitus fakes an accident and subsequent amnesia, pretending to forget his IQ, piano skills and vast encyclopedic knowledge.

After the “accident,” he manages to make friends with a boy his own age with whom he goes for bike rides in the park. Helen is utterly miserable at this drastic change, but Grandpa takes it all in stride. The grandfather and grandson spend wonderful weekends together, and the trust Vitus shows toward the older man is touching — every child genius should have at least one person who never attempts to evaluate or pile on the pressure.

Murer keeps the pace leisured and the emotions neutral. True to his style, he doesn’t attempt to make Vitus (at either age) look beatific or cover up the boy’s arrogance, unfriendliness and lack of charm. The best of him only comes out when he’s at the piano or with Grandpa — the rest of the time he can be quite creepy. If nothing else, “Vitus” shows why childhood is so precious: Often it’s the only time in a person’s life when it’s OK to just be — and a extraordinary gift like Vitus’ can both enhance the joy or do irretrievable damage.

The week’s other films:
Quiet Room ni Yokoso: Is it more cuckoo in there or out here?
Fido: Like death warmed up