‘Vitus’ a fresh and nuanced family drama
ASPEN “Vitus,” by Swiss director and co-writer Fredi M. Murer, was proving itself to be a well-crafted, well-acted, fresh and likable drama of life. But about an hour into the film, I was struck by the anguished thought that “Vitus” was headed toward delivering an all-too-obvious message, a paper-thin moral that could easily be encapsulated in a brief sentence. Something like, “Kids need their hearts fed as much as their brains.””Vitus” comes dangerously close. The title character (played first by Fabrizio Borsani, then by Teo Gheorghiu as he approaches his teens) is a little boy with a big brain. An accomplished pianist at the age of 6, Vitus von Holzen is smarter not only than his kindergarten classmates, but his teacher as well. His parents – Leo (Urs Jucker), himself a smart guy who invents hearing aids, and Helen (Julika Jenkins) – aren’t standard-issue stage parents, pushing their son to maximum capacity. But they do have a pride in Vitus that can border on the unhealthy. At a dinner party to celebrate the sale of Leo’s latest creation, they push a reluctant Vitus onto the piano bench to lord it over one of Leo’s co-workers.
It’s a reasonably happy upbringing for the prodigy. His parents are affectionate. His braininess is not confined to one obsession, but is well-balanced. He doesn’t relate at all to his classmates, but he does bond with people closer to his intelligence level. He has a sense of humor. Still, there are issues connected to his advanced capacity. Vitus wants a taste of the adult world, for which he is not exactly ready. He develops a crush on his babysitter, and he can demonstrate a wicked stubbornness, especially with regard to Helen, who has quit her job to be a full-time parent. It is in the mother-son relationship that we sense the uneasiness stirring just beneath Vitus’ surface.Juxtaposed against this unsettled state is Vitus’ untroubled relationship with his grandfather (played by the versatile and always notable Bruno Ganz). Grandpa is no genius, but a simple woodworker (specialty: coffins) living in something a step above a shack. But the old man has everything Vitus needs: imagination, charm, a little reckless adventure. When Helen intrudes on a woodworking session and finds her little pianist using a saw, she freaks. Grandpa’s passion, which he shares with Vitus, is flight. It’s too perfect a metaphor by far, representing the escape that the boy needs. There is a scary moment when you think that’s all the film has to deliver, a cautionary tale about engaging the brain to the exclusion of nurturing the dreaming spirit.
“Vitus,” however, takes a twist – several twists, in fact. At least one of them – when Vitus shows a knack for high finance – is oddly goofy, but charming. And though the overall turn of events is tinged with tragedy, it also comes as a relief for the viewer. As the von Holzen family’s world is upended, the film moves into a more nuanced perspective. The family – especially Helen, who becomes the most dynamic, if not the most likable character – begins to struggle, on a variety of levels, with loss, and to accept shifting expectations as the world, and those who inhabit it, throw curveballs.”Vitus” shows for a second night on Monday at 8 p.m. at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the SummerFilms series.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org