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July 11-17, 2007

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Photograph by Christian Altofer
Fly boy: The young Vitus (Fabrizio Borsani) dreams of taking wing.

Wonder Child

'Vitus' shows us the comedy, drama and horror of the young prodigy

By Richard von Busack

DESPITE HEAVY competition, no moment of terror in the current cinema could match Sicko: That's Hillary, a recent video on YouTube, made to link Michael Moore, Hillary C., those ardent but inept terror bombers in Glasgow and England's National Health System. The whole equation is supposed to add up because these bombers are allegedly involved in a doctors' plot. The imagery includes the tower of Big Ben issuing forth the ululation of a muezzin: The bastards! Choke! They turned it into ... a minaret!

The previews for the new film Joshua offer a silver-medal challenge to this delightful anonymous Twilight Zonette. The film tells of the adventures of a dapper little kid in a dapper little suit who appears to be a homicidal maniac. The trailer, which spills entirely too many beans, shows the brat working his way up from animal killings to his baby sister. Meanwhile, the parents wonder if maybe they're being too hard on the Beaver. Since the parents are played by Vera Farmiga and Sam Rockwell—a pair of real unbalanced loads, to use the laundryman's parlance—chances are that permissiveness may be why Joshua is running amuck.

Coincidentally, the Swiss film Vitus opens the same weekend, featuring another piano-playing child prodigy in the lead, also clad in a dapper little suit. (Only living ventriloquist dummies, which overdressed children so greatly resemble, could be more sinister.)

The movie begins and ends Mr. Arkadin–wise, with 12-year-old Vitus (Teo Gheorghiu) heisting a private plane. In flashback, director Fredi M. Murer shows what Vitus was like before this caper. At 6 (portrayed by Fabrizio Borsani), he was able to play Schumann on the piano and read at such a high level that normal schooling was no longer really an option.

His mother is a redheaded Englishwoman (Julika Jenkins); his father is a highly intelligent but unappreciated inventor at a hearing-aid factory. The former is the disciplinarian; the latter is a mostly absent, unshaven, hapless presence, turning up to explain how he's been cut out of the real money at his company, yet again.

Vitus' real favorite is his grandfather. Bruno Ganz, so damaged, so malevolent as Hitler in Downfall, returns to the humane charm of early characters. The recurring symbol of this grandfather is a soft gray fedora, and it's clear that director Fredi Murer intends the man as an image of an older and vanishing Switzerland—you know, like the one in Heidi.

A cabinet maker, he lives in the country in a falling-apart house, surrounded by a palisade of corded firewood. Grandfather remains true to the memory of his late wife, though he has no pictures of her. ("She was too beautiful for a photo.") Moreover, only grandpa has the sense to treat the child prodigy like a child. When he asks Vitus what he really wants to be when he grows up—a question his parents never asked—Vitus says, "Someone else."

Indulging the boy in his love of bats, Grandfather carves up a pair of wings for him. On a stormy night after Vitus has once again been thwarted by his mother, Vitus tries to fly. The boy crashes and has a concussion; when he comes out of it, he has lost 60 IQ points and the ability to play the piano.

Now normal, as such, he faces the disappointment of his mother; meanwhile, the family fortunes are sinking, thanks to the mismanagement of dad's hearing-aid company. It may come to pass that the Americans may buy out the company. And at this point, it's almost as if the Americans made a hostile takeover of Vitus. A happy-ending plot starts to brew, involving Vitus' sudden understanding of how to manipulate the stock market and a chance to rescue his family from their troubles.

All this stuff does the movie a bad turn. Previously, Murer had done a fine job of showing the isolation of a genius child: how at school, everyone's leg is stretched out to trip him up, how at home, parents try to put limits on his knowledge, or to lead him through his paces at the keyboard. Since Gheroghiu is a real-life prodigy, the scenes at the piano have genuine excitement, and there's also a party sequence where he gets to try out a little R&B, putting down the bass line on the old hit "Nut Bush City Limits."

Probably the finest thing about Vitus is the way it handles the push and pull between a wunderkind and a firm mother. Murer never quite presents the clash of wills in its simplest form—of a cruel mom working out her own disappointment on the next generation. The prime moment of conflict involves a trip to visit a world-famous pianist, and how Vitus decides not to perform for her. The great lady forgives him and advises him that to be a pianist he must have both cold rationality and a warm heart. Vitus' mother believes that the boy has squandered a chance for a piano lesson, little realizing that her son got a valuable lesson all the same.

Though Vitus is a comedy/drama and Joshua is bad-seed horror, they share the same perplexed admiration and fear of a clever young son. In this world, there's no clear border between molding a child and malforming him; the gap between these two extremes is the realm where the root of so much horror cinema is planted.

Movie Times Vitus (PG; 120 min.), directed by Fredi Murer, written by Peter Luisi, Lukas B. Suter and Murer, photographed by Pio Corradi and starring Fabrizio Borsani, Teo Gheorghiu and Bruno Ganz, opens July 13 at selected theaters.

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