Perilous Journeys, Remarkable Lives
by Claude Kenneson
(in Hardcover from Amazon)
If you're a serious film lover, a member of the intelligentia, a classical music maven, a sucker for character studies and the actors who make them live, this is for you. You'll not only be captivated for two hours, you'll be amused throughout as you live through the early years of a child prodigy who uses his considerable genius to mask it while he tries to figure out what to do with it.
Though the film starts with a prologue in which our hero Vitus (pronounced veetus) von Holzen, at the ripe old age of what? -- twelve? -- breaks into an airport, unlocks and boards a plane which he rightfully owns(!) and, defying the shouts of an airfield mechanic to stop immediately, takes off at a steep angle. Though his pure glee is evident as he flies into the blue yonder and over a mountain range, it isn't until the end that we learn of his destination.
Mom Helen and pop Leo (wonderful Julika Jenkins and warmly comfortable Urs Jucker) realize from an early age that the genius their child owns is real. Fortunately for Vitus, they are cultured and tasteful enough to value and protect it in a nurturing way, though not without some stumbles and poor choices. Not even a genius who scores an IQ that is virtually incalculable knows what's best or desirable for himself at age six (Fabrizio Borsani).
Most beneficially, he has a grandpa (Bruno Ganz) who provides a refuge, both physical and emotional, when demands grow too great. But what's at the core of Vitus' problem is that he can't decide what path in life he wants to pursue. He can't just accept his parents' expectations. His exploits at the keyboard are a fine dinner party diversion with which they can stun their friends and business associates, but with his interests in bats and their phenomenal hearing abilities, and as it applies to his father's business in hearing devices, his interest in the stock market, aviation and one or two other fields, he's just not ready to make a commitment. Mom and pop may tear their hair out about his constantly unexpected behavior but who else can blame him?
Along the way he allows his fortress of rebellion to be breached by his new babysitter Isabel when she's 12 (Kristina Lykowa) only to fall in love with her later when she's a beautiful 19 (Tamara Scarpellini) and he's 12. In fact, he's stunned by her looks. By that time, too, his genius in trading his grandpa's life savings for short options on his father's failing business, with a little inside knowledge, has made a millionaire out of him (and grandpa) and opened up vast new possibilities.
He has become a pre-teen entrepreneur who thinks his business suit and relative aging calculations are going to somehow convince Isabel of his underage desirability. As for sex... well "we can put that off for awhile." Fortunately, the fairy tale we're witnessing is safely enfolded within a strict framework of reality and it never steps off into the bizarre. It's a what-if scenario that is spendidly well played out and creatively charming every step of it's original way.
With all the depth and penetration of a novel, one might expect that it was adapted from one. It is, however, crafted from an original screenplay by writer-director Fredi M. Murer, whose own genius is made evident here in a brilliantly structured piece that dramatizes the conflict between loving parents' wishes and expectations for us and the impulse to choose for ourselves.
"ViTUS" is also a brilliant glorification of the power of music, and in that, may well have been inspired by or intentionally adapted to the particular gifts of its star. Actor Teo Gheorghiu (age 14 when this was made) actually plays Bach and Mendelshohn on the piano as witnessed here, making the fullest exposure of his command of the keyboard from all angles possible. Talk about precocious genius.
Once all that's out of the way, we have Bruno Ganz, who deserves a hug. Seemingly ubiquitous in European and American film ("The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Reich" on HBO, "The Manchurian Candidate" with Denzel Washington," and Fernando Girasoli's endearing "Bread and Tulips"), I don't think he's ever done a more sympathetically balanced role. He is the understanding and impishly eccentric engineer-dabbler and domestic spaghetti-maker in heart and mind. He convinces us that he may well have provided at least some of the smart genes that went into Vitus' DNA, and is a model of -- if not adult behavior -- a certain creative spirit. Ganz always seems to enjoy his character roles, but never more than this, and we with him.
As a parable of fairy-tale genius springing into a modern world of pervading normality, "Vitus" teaches, amuses and enriches -- all in a context of delicious, unassuming satire.
~~ Jules Brenner