Summary: The German film "Vitus" mixes psychological realism and crowd-pleasing fantasy in ways that don't always make sense, but still go down smoothly.
On its surface, "Vitus" is pleasant enough, a fanciful and satisfying story about a piano prodigy who wants to escape the burdens of his very substantial genius. I have no first-hand knowledge about the isolation caused by extraordinary brilliance, but I still found the subject intriguing.
For a while, it seems as if director Fredi M. Murer will stick to a tried-and-true formula, realistically exploring the pressures the boy faces and the responsibility his parents feel about nurturing his talent.
Vitus' mother (Julika Jenkins) doesn't quite know where to draw the line when it comes to her son's talent; she's not a full-blown zealot, but she goes beyond ordinary devotion. She decides to make a career out of the boy's development. She pushes Vitus to practice piano, and begins to treat his high-grade intelligence as a statement about herself. The boy's father (Urs Jucker) displays a more laissez-faire attitude toward his son. He's busy inventing a new kind of hearing aid and trying to rise to the top of his company.
In any case, both parents clearly love Vitus, even if they don't always know how to express it, and that's one of the movie's many virtues. Problems don't destroy love; they just make it more difficult.
Two actors play the movie's title character. Fabrizio Borsani portrays the boy at age six, and Teo Gheorghiu, a real piano prodigy, takes over when Vitus turns 12. The movie's first act ends with the six-year-old Vitus locking his parents out of their apartment while he plays the piano, an act of rebellion that reverberates throughout the movie's second half.
It probably should come as no surprise that "Vitus" makes room for a kindly grandfather, played in engaging fashion by an aging Bruno Ganz, who makes a major shift after appearing as Hitler in the gripping "Downfall" of a couple of seasons back. Grandpa adores the boy and insists on treating him as if he were normal. Vitus later obliges by faking an accident and pretending that his IQ has dropped. No longer amazingly precocious, he's just another kid.
The movie's third act centers on the quiet re-emergence of Vitus' genius, albeit in entirely unexpected ways that include illegal maneuvering on the stock market. Turns out the kid can turn a buck as easily as he can run off an arpeggio. I have no need of a personal pianist, but I'd sure as hell hire the boy as my broker.
At its core, the movie involves Vitus' struggle to control his own intelligence, and if it weren't for a mild overdose of whimsy (filmmakers definitely should declare a moratorium on the use of flying as a metaphor), "Vitus" might have acquired enough significance to match its easygoing charm.
The movie, by the way, unfolds in an unhurried fashion that surely will be sacrificed when some idea-starved studio remakes "Vitus" in English.