“What does paradoxical mean?” When six-year-old Vitus (Fabrizio Borsani) queries his quarreling parents, they pause. But just for a moment. When his father Leo (Urs Jucker) initiates an explanation, his mother, Helen (Julika Jenkins) stops him and sends her son to get ready for school. “Two minutes,” she commands. Vitus puts his head down, turns, and obeys.
While the concept might seem beyond a child so young, the film Vitus makes the case that in fact, the boy embodies it. A piano prodigy and math whiz who years before made his gifts known, he’s looking for challenges while surrounded by banalities. The problem is exacerbated by his parents, both bright but constrained, hoping to make him fit into tracks they can understand. He wants a real piano, not the keyboard they’ve set up in their apartment. He wants to share with his kindergarten classmates the crisis of global warming. When his teacher informs Helen that he’s frightening the other kids (“He told them they would all have to die”), she realizes that she’ll have to make some changes.
Teo Gheorghiu, Julika Jenkins, Urs Jucker, Bruno Ganz
(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 29 Jun 2007 (Limited release)
Helen is used to dealing with a distracted, even a brilliant, mind (her husband is an inventor of increasingly helpful hearing aids who has been known to head out the door with his pants unzipped), but her usual mode of managing, by which she tidies up while subtly setting his direction, is increasingly ineffective for her child. Still, she pursues containment. She decides to bring in a coworker’s 12-year-old daughter Isabel (Kristina Lykowa) to babysit, offhandedly dismissing Vitus’ point that he’s “not a baby.” initially resentful of Isabel, Vitus soon discovers in her what he considers a kindred spirit (she wants to be a “rock star” and likes to lip-sync “Nutbush City Limits” while he plays the piano). Energetic, imaginative, and ambitious, Isabel looks like the rebel Vitus might want to be. One minor episode later, Helen quits her job to stay home with Vitus; asked whether she’s considered the cost to her career, she smiles. “What if this is my career?” she offers, setting her own direction for the rest of the film.
Her devotion predictably starts to bother Vitus. By the time he’s grown up to be 12 (and played by real life piano prodigy Teo Gheorghiu), she’s taking him round to famous teachers, hoping to ensure his success, and—no small thing, given her husband’s not exactly secure job—the family’s future. Vitus, however, is bristling at her ongoing efforts to shape his desires to correspond with hers.
When they arrive at the home of the super-exclusive Madame Fois (Heidy Forster), Vitus acts out, announcing that he’d rather not play for her, that she should, in fact, play for him. It’s an apt turnabout for a child so used to performing on cue, so used to being tested, assessed, and managed. While Helen cringes and makes faces in the background (“Do it for me!”), Madame Fois laughs. “It’s more important for a pianist to have good parents than a good teacher,” she says. You should play neither for me nor your mother. Just take your time and play the piano for the sake of the music.” Such wisdom is lost on Helen, who excoriates her son on the drive home (“I will never forgive you for this, do you hear me? Never!”). Still, something strikes the boy, who sets about training his parents to be better versions of themselves.
Vitus finds help in this endeavor from his grandfather (wonderful Bruno Ganz). Interspersed throughout the film in a way that makes them seem set apart and vaguely timeless, their shared adventures (including the construction of a flying contraption, with bat-like wings) grant the child some chance to be childlike, to wonder, wander, and feel unconditionally approved. If his other interactions seem occasionally overstated (Vitus mouths off, Vitus discovers rock music, 12-year-old Vitus is taunted by his high school classmates), his time with his grandfather is sweet without being too sentimental. (Ganz has everything to do with this effect, his work here, as always, subtle, galvanizing, and generous.) When Helen discovers the boy sawing boards for the flying machine, she flies into a panic: “Are you completely crazy? What if he hurts his hands?”
Her upset forms the film’s basis for indicting the parents. While the exact mix of Helen’s motives is never spelled out—is she interested in developing the boy’s talent, conforming to expectations, securing finances?—it’s clear enough that she loses sight of Vitus’ interests, increasingly obsessed with preserving and developing his musical gift. He, in turn, finds his own ingeniously deceptive way to shape his future, redirecting his talents toward capital ventures.
As it explores the demands placed on children generally through this special and contrived case, Vitus is soon caught up in a plot where “success” is measured, quite prosaically, by money. Vitus more or less voices the paradox, when he says he wants to be “normal,” but is visibly bored by what passes for same. And so he finds an outlet that allows him to be both amazing and boring: Vitus’ wondrous, instantaneous ability to play the stock market (like his musical brilliance, as he plays back full musical compositions after hearing them just once) leaves him in control of his workaholic father’s fate in a way that’s frankly creepy. As his adult caretakers tend to look on Vitus with variations of awe, it’s not surprising that he looks back on them with some condescension. The trouble is that the movie tends to share his perspective.