Starring Bruno Ganz and Teo Gheorghiu. In English and Swiss German with English subtitles. Rated G. Opens Friday, July 13, at the Cinemark Tinseltown
Vitus is a film about childhood, but it's not, strictly speaking, a children's film. The Swiss-made tale examines some of the abiding concerns of pre-adulthood, but in a decidedly grown-up fashion.
The carefully crafted movie, from writer-director Fredi M. Murer, centres on Vitus, a child prodigy initially played by big-eyed Fabrizio Borsani but mostly by Teo Gheorghiu, who appears to be every bit as much a wunderkind on the piano.
From an early age, the Zurich boy notes tensions within his parents' marriage. Dad (Urs Jucker) is a perpetually unshaven inventor whose work on a cosmetically appealing hearing aid saves a floundering audio company without securing his own future. English-born Mom (Julika Jenkins) is disturbingly ready to give up her own career when she recognizes her son's vast musical talent. Vitus, who is equally gifted in math and other deductive areas, knows they are not bad parents, but he also realizes that they are not cheering him on due to their intense love of Bach and Shostakovich.
For a while, the boy's own fascination with music provides enough motivation. But having skipped ahead several grades, he is mocked by adolescent high schoolers even as he effortlessly humiliates his professors. Something has to give.
There are two bright spots in Vitus's life, apart from his future as a potential Mozart. One is his doting grandfather, played unforgettably by veteran Bruno Ganz, who just two years ago was glowering in the bunker as Hitler in Downfall. The other is his cute baby sitter, who teaches him the value of rock 'n' roll and a cheap Chianti with the result that 1) she is fired and 2) he is guaranteed to keep looking for his reverse Lolita over the years to come.
In any case, his dilemma of being 12 going on 40 is such that he begins looking for a way out. Something comes, in a way, from his grandpa's love of flying. Thanks to a bizarre event, Vitus gets his chance to fit in with the underachievers. But, as Bruce Cockburn used to say, the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.
Some viewers may find the accelerated last quarter of Vitus too crammed with incident to be believable. And the temptation to judge the characters harshly may be too great for some viewers. But the filmmaker, who is himself of grandpa age, mixes myth and matter-of-factness in a way that gets to the heart of childhood and is genuinely touching and insightful–even if we are not all that young, or gifted.