Young genius, parental ambition clash in 'Vitus'
"Vitus" is about genius at a young age, and as a movie for our moment, the Swiss title character's genius is compatible with many platforms. At 12, he's a brilliant pianist, a brilliant pilot, a brilliant snob, a brilliant grandson, a brilliant smart-aleck and a brilliant inside trader. Vitus is the iPhone of prodigies, and like Apple's coveted device, he's not perfect. But unlike the iPhone, the kid's flaws make him and the movie occasionally interesting.
Played as a 6-year-old by Fabrizio Borsani and as a 12-year-old by the real-life piano prodigy Teo Gheorghiu, Vitus is a genius trapped by his parents' expectations -- OK, his mother's. She's been dreaming for her son to be the best at everything, particularly classical piano. When, as a preteen, he intentionally blows an audition at a fancy-pants music school, mom (Julika Jenkins) takes it personally. His father (Urs Jucker) and grandfather (Bruno Ganz) put no pressure on him and love him unconditionally. It's mom who has all the ambition for this kid -- she considers taking time off from work to make his success her full-time job.
In an accident, Vitus suffers a concussion that, according to expert tests, lowers his IQ by 60 points: When he tickles the old ivories, the piano doesn't laugh. Superman has gone back to being Clark Kent, and the sudden averageness depresses his mother. But there's an upside: The intellectually advanced, emotionally strange child, who mocked his peers and teachers for being inferior, wants to relate to other ordinary kids. He hugs, emotes ("I love you, mama"), and wears baggy street clothes.
Directed and co-written by Fredi M. Murer, "Vitus" isn't as dramatically or psychologically complex as it should be. Vitus himself is a neat creation, but the movie is uncomfortable with the stillness that accompanies introspection and analysis. So it's always up to something, and I'd say the last two-thirds are up to too much. Grandpa tells the boy of his dwindling finances, and Vitus springs to action (possibly illegal). It all connects to his father's collapsing workplace fortunes. You'll have to see for yourself exactly how. But the movie places an amazing premium on money. It wakes up Vitus and makes him an even more uncanny little man than he was before his accident.
The unofficial American version of this movie is the recent "Joshua," and where that film wants to denigrate the prodigy as the sadistic byproduct of upward mobility, "Vitus" celebrates the prodigy's intellectual dynamism. Both movies are equally queasy -- the concern in "Vitus" for its genius's mental well-being is fake, especially once we know very little is wrong with him. It's amazing what easily-gotten millions can do for your disposition, the movie says. Nothing about the adulatory final sequence feels earned since nothing organic wills it into being. "Joshua" is a horror movie that doesn't want to freak you out too much. "Vitus" freaks you out, but its makers seem to have no idea that it does.