“Beautiful landscapes, they are nice on the postcards, but not, not very nice…I don’t like it on the screen…for me, at the very center are the actors.”
An American film studio probably would have found a way to edit out a solid half-hour of Vitus. The base narrative of the film could easily have been told in the space of an hour or so, which would have left plenty of time to fill it out with the adorable little details that would efficiently warm the cockles of impatient American hearts.
Thankfully, Vitus is a Swiss film, largely impervious to corporate pressures of the sort that typical American films of this type tend to be affected by. Under the watchful eyes of director Fredi Murer and editor Myriam Flury, Vitus is as thoughtful as it is heartwarming, its languid pace providing interesting juxtaposition to the story of a boy forced to grow up too fast.
Vitus is a child prodigy, you see, a “wunderkind” (as the film repeatedly puts it) of the highest order. His brain is logical to a fault, able at six to do his babysitter’s algebra homework and dutifully impress his father’s dinner party, able at 12 to play like a concert pianist and take upper level high school courses, yet never able to comprehend or have the patience for the societal ideals of modesty and courtesy.
His mother pushes him hard to fulfill his immense potential, his father works—a little too much, perhaps—for the good of his family, resulting in a Vitus who never necessarily seems happy or depressed, just displaced. Painfully aware of his “gifts”, Vitus seeks solace in his grandfather, a slightly eccentric, pragmatic free spirit played masterfully by the wonderful Bruno Ganz, who only offers the wisdom of his years when he deems it truly necessary.
The moral, as you might expect, is a little bit of “be yourself” and a little bit of “follow your dreams”. The route it takes to its satisfying conclusion, however, is quite inventive, and invariably interesting.
Still, anyone reading those previous paragraphs has likely filled in a mental checklist of gifted-kid-movie clichés. What truly makes Vitus a notable film is the apparent realism that Murer’s direction offers the seen-it-before story arc. There are few sunny days in Vitus’ world, few cutesy set pieces that the sort of film dominated for long stretches by a child would typically call for.
Vitus’ mother, while pushy, never comes off as cold, or evil. Vitus’ dad is at work all the time, but he’s always excited and thrilled to interact with his son. Gramps is as close to a character cliché as there is, the old and wise patriarch shaking his head at his children as he nurtures his grandson, but despite his positioning as the most endearing character in the film, he is flawed as well. While the overall story arcs might be familiar, the characterizations are only so in the way that these actors look like people we know, these cloudy days look like weather we’re all too familiar with.
The aforementioned editing plays into this sense of realism-in-fiction perfectly, as we bear witness to what the “ordinary” aspects of life are like for someone like Vitus. Vitus practices the piano. Vitus reads the newspaper. Vitus sits in his room. Vitus has conversations with grandpa that feature lots of long silences. All of these things happen repeatedly throughout the movie, setting up a sort of closed set of tasks that Vitus must perform, putting him in a box that he desperately wishes to escape. Despite the decidedly unusual child, it is well established both visually and through the pacing that Vitus’ life is ultimately rather unstimulating, even if it is also very much not “normal”.
The cuts that Ms. Flury made must have been difficult as well, as the extra scenes included on Vitus’ DVD release are interesting to watch, even if they don’t necessarily add much to the narrative. Vitus does algebra, Vitus plays another song, and there’s even a strange, vaguely Cronenbergian sequence in which his parents kiss deeply after getting into what looks like it could have been a seriously terrible accident. What’s fascinating about watching these clips is just how readily they identify the quirks of Vitus and those around him; it’s as if Flury deliberately edited out the easy answers in favor of the ambiguous and the mundane.
The end result is a film that will likely have a difficult time finding too much of an audience. It’s incredibly difficult to get truly excited about a film like Vitus, as there’s nothing outwardly exciting or groundbreaking about it, and it tells a story that’s been told many, many times before. Still, those who luck into watching it, for whatever reason, will find themselves absorbed and touched by the beautiful little story contained herein.