Judge Franck Tabouring sometimes wishes he could play the piano like this.
At age 6, his masters were Bach, Mozart, Schumann, and Liszt. By age 12, he had mastered them.
Sometimes great intellect and unique talents come with a high price, especially when you're still a kid. Fredi M. Murer's Swiss family film Vitus shows how an exceptional IQ can be more of a curse than a blessing to a child prodigy as it tells the story of a gifted boy who is clever enough not to let his parents deprive him of the only childhood he has.
Vitus was Switzerland's official 2006 Academy Awards entry for Best Foreign Language Film. Although the movie addresses interesting issues and strives to delight its audience, it lacked the required qualities of a noteworthy Oscar nominee.
Facts of the Case
When we first meet Vitus (Fabrizio Borsani), he's just a 6-year-old boy asking his parents for a piano. His mom (Julika Jenkins) tells him to go ask his dad (Urs Jucker), and his dad, who is busy inventing fashionable hearing aids, gives him the nod. A couple of weeks later, Vitus is playing the piano like a young Mozart already, and his mother has grown highly interested in her son's exceptional talent. She now wants him to become a virtuoso pianist, making sure the boy gets enough practice on a daily basis. Sadly enough, she never asks him what he thinks about her big plans and, if he complains, she just ignores it.
The film then jumps forward in time, and Vitus (now played by Teo Gheorghiu) is 12 years old. He's fed up with playing the piano and wishes he had some friends, and the only person he feels comfortable around is his grandfather (Bruno Ganz, The Downfall). Together, they manage to escape everyday troubles and usually spent their time dreaming of flying. One night Vitus deliberately jumps off his balcony but survives the fall with minor cuts, which gives him the idea of pretending that the incident has caused his talents to fade away.
Vitus has come a long way from the beautiful country of Switzerland, and while the film is not a complete waste of celluloid, it's not exactly a masterpiece either. The story is excessively mild. Instead of supplying his characters with interesting and gripping challenges that could help them understand their flaws and the complexity of life, Murer prefers them to engage in a horde of saccharine conversations about chasing one's dreams. I fully understand that having someone to share experiences with is a wonderful gift, but why does all the dialogue have to be so sappy? It works just as well if you address the subject matter in a more serious, realistic way. Vitus' heart-to-hearts with his sweet grandfather are often too corny to believe, and add very little to the boy's actual struggle with his parents' pressure and his unique intelligence. Instead, all these two do is fantasize about becoming pilots and flying away.
Another easily noticed flaw is that Murer packed his film with too many themes and subplots. Looking at the plot of Vitus from a broader perspective, the movie deals with death, the loss of a loved one, remarkable intellect, and capitalism. It is obvious that this is too much material to handle at once. The story starts off with a young child prodigy pushed into pursuing his parent's dreams, but sooner or later, you'll see the plot shift into a completely different direction. By the time the film reaches its climax, the story of the clever boy who makes everybody believe he lost his talents is long-forgotten, and the film transmutes into a melodramatic examination of death and the everlasting human need for love. Not to say that Murer ever sends out the wrong messages, but he simply fails to keep the focus on what the film is supposed to deal with in the first place.
The movie also starts a series of subplots that are never finished or developed enough. In the beginning of the movie, when Vitus is only 6, his only friend is his 12-year-old babysitter Isabel (Kristina Lykowa). Together, they sing and dance around the apartment, contrary to how Vitus' parents want him to behave. After the leap in time, Vitus claims he's always been in love with her, and although they both share a few moments on the screen, their so-called relationship lacks depth.
As a whole, Vitus is a family film with wonderful intentions, but it's the execution of Murer's vivid ideas that often threatens the credibility of the film. By now, we all know Vitus is a highly gifted child, but some of the actions he engages in here are just too incredible to be true. Breaking into an airport and stealing a turboprop, leasing an apartment in downtown Zurich, creating a holding company to help his father out of debt, and entering the stock market to win a few millions of Swiss francs all seem to be as easy as opening a door. In a country with extremely tight laws and rules, this seems just a little too unlikely.
Vitus is rated PG and said to be a family drama targeting every age, but I can hardly imagine young kids reading subtitles for two hours. As beautiful as it is, Swiss German differs a lot from traditional High German, so even those working on a degree in German will eventually have to read their way through the film. Parents may appreciate the film's overall harmless themes and messages, but if there's really one good reason to meet Vitus, it's the film's subtle selection of classical tunes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the story lacks further development and some characters appear too shallow to be intriguing enough, it's the cast that makes Vitus worth watching. Top acting honors go to the young and adorable Fabrizio Borsani, who plays the 6-year-old Vitus with gripping enthusiasm. But it's a real shame we only get to see him during the first 30 minutes, before Teo Gheorghiu takes over the role. Gheorghiu is a musical prodigy in real life and, while it's fascinating to watch him dominate the piano on the screen, he could've put more effort into his acting. He still manages to deliver an above-average performance, but his expressions seem a little stiff at times. Then there's Bruno Ganz, who after his flawless impersonation of Adolf Hitler in The Downfall, completely switched genres and plays Vitus' understanding grandfather. He's responsible for most of the sappy scenes I mentioned earlier, but his acting at least remains top-notch.
As far as the audio goes, Vitus literally hits all the right notes. Classical music plays a major part of the film, and the quality of the sound is excellent. The 1.85:1 widescreen presentation looks good as well, and the image is sharp enough for us to fully enjoy the decent photography by Pio Corradi, who has been working with Murer for many years.
Quality beats quantity on the Vitus DVD, and most of the special features add compelling information about the movie as a whole. Besides seven decent deleted scenes, the bonus material also includes a screen test with Teo Gheorghiu, in which he proves his English skills, talks about his childhood, and gives his viewers yet another remarkable taste of his talents as a young pianist. The special features section also comprises an eight-minute interview with Bruno Ganz, in which he reveals thought-provoking information about his experience on stage and the numerous challenges an actor can face when slipping into a character in front of the camera.
The best extra on the disc is a 54-minute featurette about the making of the movie. Directed by Rolf Lyssy, a close friend of Fredi M. Murer, this compelling piece starts off with the birth of the project and includes informative interviews with the cast and crew about anything related to the shooting of the film. A pleasant homage to Murer and his passion for the movie, this featurette has everything a solid behind-the-scenes look requires. In his feature-length commentary, Fredi M. Murer elaborates on some aspects mentioned in the making-of. He starts off with a gripping story from his own childhood, and tells his viewers that he always wanted to be a gifted kid himself. He then goes on to discussing individual scenes and praising the work with his actors, whom he really seemed to have had a great time with. I also want to point out that Murer recorded this commentary in English exclusively for his English-speaking audience and, although he has a strong accent, he speaks slowly enough for everybody to understand him just fine. Admiring indeed.
Although Vitus clocks in at 123 minutes and suffers from substantial plot holes, it's not a movie that's hard to sit through. The plot covers enough material to keep us awake and sparks our curiosity of what will eventually become of Vitus. The ending is predictable enough and doesn't add much surprise to the story, but it involves a few typical feel-good moments that are well-structured enough to make up for some of the film's more bizarre scenes. The special features section on the DVD is quite impressive, but it doesn't help in making the film any better.
Guilty of providing its audience with a schmaltzy storyline that lacks subtlety and development.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Fredi M. Murer
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