If you like foreign films and eventually want your children to develop a fondness for them as well, "Vitus" might be a good place to start. This Swiss entry in the 2006 Academy Awards category for Best Foreign Film is engaging adult fare with subject matter that also makes it appealing for families. It's only rated PG for "mild thematic elements and language," but more importantly "Vitus" should hold your young person's interest because at the film's core is that age-old conflict between parental expectations/obligations and the extent to which kids should determine their own fates.
The soundtrack is in German, but because the pacing is somewhere between leisurely and crisp it will give your fourth-grader or older enough time to read the subtitles without much of a problem. And yes, it moves more quickly than the typically pensive foreign film.
"Vitus" is the kind of story where not much happens, and yet a great deal happens. It's a character-driven drama that risks sentimentality by not shying away from emotion, and uses light humor to keep things from getting too schmaltzy. What makes it a winning film are the actors' winning performances, an intelligent script, and sensitive direction.
The premise is certainly one we've seen before. A child relates better to his grandfather than his parents, has a crush on a babysitter, and copes with being "different" at school as his parents' expectations for him rise. And his parents expect a lot, because this kid's IQ is somewhere in the neighborhood of 180.
When you consider that Stephen Hawking's IQ is around 160, no wonder this kid is a mathematical whiz who ends up being able to answer questions as a youngster attending high school classes that the older kids can't even grasp. An IQ like this places him in good musical company too, with Bach estimated to have had an IQ of 180, Straus and Wagner 170 each, and Mozart and Beethoven at 165. From the first time he sees a keyboard, young Vitus seems able to see the notes as a series of mathematical progressions that come to him as easily as square roots.
Unlike most kids his age, Vitus actually likes playing piano, and his mother (Julika Jenkins) takes him out of school so he can spend all day doing what he likes. Just as well. As a kindergartener, he was scaring the other kids by reading them stories about global warming and telling them they're all going to die some day. Vitus's mother knows he's intellectually advanced and musically gifted, so like any good stage mother she's pushing him toward the greatness she thinks awaits him. Dad (Leo von Holzen), meanwhile, is a little more low-key, probably because he's an inventor who's preoccupied with his own creations--a pair of new "designer-look" hearing aids that greatly magnify what the human ear can hear, picking up sounds that only cats and bats can. Not coincidentally, he calls his new inventions the "Cat-ear" and "Bat-ear."
Both parents are loving and understanding, which removes them from the tired old clichés of abusive parents or parents who force their children to do things without understanding the impact that it has on their lives. Yes, they push a little too much, but at least these parents seem to realize that six-year-old Vitus (Fabrizio Borsani)--and the even more precocious 12-year-old Vitus (real child prodigy Teo Gheorghiu)--actually likes playing piano, and seems torn between reveling in his superior intellect and wishing he were normal. The most extreme example of this comes when he stages an accident and (we suspect) fakes a brain injury just to relieve himself of that burdensome IQ. But he quickly reverts back to the old Vitus-the one who won't suffer fools, and who takes a certain delight in hurling subtle insults at his teachers in front of the other students.
Vitus most comes to life when he's around his live-in grandfather (Bruno Ganz, "The Manchurian Candidate"), who has an eccentrically cavalier attitude towards genius and everyday life. Grandpa has always wanted to fly, and so he's forever making things that fly in the backyard--including a boomerang he tosses that takes out one of the windows in the house (shrug), and a "bat"-winged flight suit for young Vitus to run around in. Dreamers breed other dreamers, and we can see where Vitus's father gets his attitudes from, and see as well the effect that the grandfather has on him as well. But even minor characters are important in this film, which revolves around the ways that people relate (or can't relate) to Vitus, and vice versa. At the center of his social development is an infatuation he has with a babysitter named Isabel (Kristina Lykowa) that makes such an impact that he seeks her out when she's seven years older (Tamara Scarpellini).
That's what gives this film a nice balance and makes it more than a slice-of-life biography of a genius. Vitus doesn't just come alive when he's sitting at the keyboards. His zest for life is awakened by contact with other dreamers--something that even average IQ folks can identify with. And though Vitus doesn't necessarily see it, his parents have a vibrant relationship. People, after all, are what make life interesting, and the same holds true with films like "Vitus."
This Sony Pictures Classics title is mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. There's a slight graininess, but the colors are rich and bright and black levels are strong enough for us to be able to pull some detail even out of scenes that are dark or shadowy. Overally, a solid picture.
Same with the sound, a German (Swiss) Dolby Digital 5.1 with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. There's a natural-sounding treble, a rich bass, and just enough rear-speaker effects to remind us that it's surround sound.
The bonus features are solid too. The making-of feature isn't just an afterthought. It's a film made by Rolf Lyssy with Murer's permission, shot from the very beginning of the filming process and edited with a little more artistic flair than the usual making-of feature. Lyssy also provides an interview with Ganz, who mostly talks generally about acting ("I trust the camera because it loves me . . . . It is a wonderful relationship between me and this machine").
A short but still interesting screen test shows 11-year-old Teo Gheorghiu at the piano and talking about himself. Like "Vitus," he loves mathematics as well.
Rounding out the bonus features are 7 deleted and alternate scenes, many of which are a little racier than the footage that Murer retained.
Do we need another child prodigy film? Probably not, but this one from Fredi M. Murer delights us anyway because of an engaging cast, a smart script, and perceptive direction.