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European Film Festival Reviews:

Vitus, a whizz-kid

For those who have ever wondered about the life of a childhood prodigy, this very theme is explored in Vitus, a 2006 Swiss German release by Murer. The film gives the viewer a peak into one type of life in Switzerland and shows some of the country's most stunning scenery.

At just six years old, Vitus plays like a veteran concert pianist, and he boasts an IQ to go with his musical ability. He has trouble restraining himself in class, mocking his classmates, even when they're considerably older. Vitus is put on an accelerated schedule and exposed to adolescents disinclined to be tolerant of a young genius. Yet his life has been all planned out by his parents: first the conservatory, then a brilliant career as a concert pianist. Or maybe as an engineer, like his father.

Vitus' British-born mother, fond of mixing English words in with her German, is loving, but too devoted to her son's talent. She is as unshakable as any stage mom, unaware of the psychological toll his special gifts are costing her son. Helen quits her job in order to manage Vitus's career. In order to "show the world we have a real Wunderkind," she makes him perform for dinner guests and takes him out of kindergarten because he's too smart for the other children.

By the time Vitus gets to the middle school, he is so arrogant that the teachers are uncomfortable with him for showing them up. The other children hate him for being too clever and coming to school dressed in a suit and tie. When he refuses to play for a legendary piano teacher, it becomes clear that Vitus just wants to be like everyone else.

Vitus' father, Leo is a bit of a whiz himself, although his specialty is high-tech hearing devices. He lacks people skills and a formal education, but his aptitude is so strong that he's promoted to the top of an electronic company in no time. Meanwhile his mother, Helen, leaves her job so that she can focus on fostering Vitus' talent. The pressure to perform quickly starts to weigh down on young Vitus. While it's evident his parents love him, they also view him as a commodity.

The scenes between Vitus and his grandfather are where the film really shines. His grandfather does exactly what he wants when he wants to; swiping flowers out of a neighbor's garden, teaching Vitus woodwork and building flying machines in his barn. No wonder Vitus likes to spend as much time with grandpa as his parents will allow, and throws tantrums when he's thwarted.

In fact the film opens with Vitus commandeering a private jet plane and soaring into the wild blue yonder. This is a symbol for the film's general theme; that prodigies have dreams too, along with flight-as-freedom metaphor.

From there we flash back to Vitus at age six, when the sheer magnitude of his talent was first starting to emerge.

The flight-as-freedom metaphor also continues throughout the film. At twelve, Vitus (played by a real piano virtuoso, Teo Gheorghiu) becomes completely rebellious and with one dramatic act sabotages all his parents' plans for him.

Prodigy

It's a shocking development and one that keeps this story of the prodigy who just wants to be a normal child from being anything like other films with a similar theme. Vitus builds himself a pair of wings and jumps off the balcony in the middle of a stormy night and pretends that he has hit his head. From this point he manages to convince everyone (parents, teachers, pediatricians and child psychiatrists) that he has reduced his IQ from 180 to 120 (still above average). He behaves as though he can no longer play the piano, leading his desperate, controlling mother into a cigarette and alcohol fueled depression.

There are some unusual and light elements to this film. Some critics claim that Vitus' mother drives her son out of love and concern for his future. However, as the film progresses and the family struggle with financial pressure, that perhaps Helen sees Vitus' talents as an opportunity for future financial gain.

Vitus' grasping for a more normal life include an infatuation with his baby-sitter, a would be rock star who engages him one night in a mock rock video.

Yet that romance and Vitus' drastic measures to liberate himself from his gifts take an outlandishly fanciful turn. His grandfather's dreams of piloting an airplane become intermingled with a grotesque plot twist in which Vitus outmaneuvers his parents by becoming a stock market whizz.

It is at this point that the film becomes totally gripping and enables the viewer to lose him/herself in it.

With the money that he earns from working the stock market with his grandfather's money, Vitus is able to purchase a year's rent on a studio.

In here, unbeknown to his parents, he practises piano and runs his stock-market business on behalf of his grandfather.

Meanwhile, Vitus' grandfather purchases a flight simulator and a light aircraft. After his death, the boy takes over his grandfather's plane and eventually flies off to see the piano teacher of his own free will.

His grandfather has left Vitus' parents a letter explaining that Vitus had not hit his head during the fall. He continues by saying that the boy's brain works so well that he has fooled everybody into thinking that he is is simply average. Vitus father subsequently discovers that Vitus has bought the company that just fired his father.

Pressure

The family had come under such intense financial pressure, that Vitus' father was forced to go begging to the CEO of this company. However, he discovers that he is now the new owner, and that this rather sadistic CEO who fired him has now lost his job.

Vitus is cast by different actors for the different ages. Teo Gheorghiu, who plays the twelve-year-old Vitus, is a good pianist and future maestro.

Murer found him at the Purcell School in London, a school for musically gifted children. Despite having a Canadian passport and of Romanian origins, Teo was born and raised in Switzerland. Fabrizio Borsani, who plays the six-year-old Vitus, was still in kindergarten, but he, too, gives an honest performance.

Julika Jenkins, a well-known stage actress in Switzerland, plays Helen. Since Jenkins is half-English, Murer has turned her character into a full English woman married to a Swiss man, which brings cross-cultural tensions to their marriage.

Urs Jucker, also a Swiss theater actor, is creditable as Vitus's scholarly father, an inventor with practical designs for his sons future.

Bruno Ganz, who plays Vitus' grandfather is one of Europe's most prolific and internationally renowned, best-known to American audiences for his bravura portrayal of Hitler in "Downfall". Blessed with abundant charisma and highly naturalistic style of performance, Ganz makes acting seem easy and effortless.

Vitus the story of an almost unimaginably gifted boy and it is interesting in the way it perceived "normality" and "specialness", against the backdrop of a dumbing down in society and the way that the same deals with people who are exceptionally gifted. It could serve as an object lesson on how not to raise an exceptional child. Vitus is forced to lead his double life under the cover of normality and conformity in order to be accepted by others.

He manages to do just this. Yet once he has achieved that, Vitus goes on to excel on his own terms rather than letting others call the shots. It is interesting that during the period where everybody believes Vitus has reverted to average, he develops himself in new ways.

It is, in fact, through this period of independence that Vitus develops an enterprising side which will undoubtedly stand him in good stead for the future.

The film had mixed reviews from critics, with some claiming that the flight-as-freedom element was overplayed. Other critics were not able to get into the spirit of the film for a number of reasons.

I can't help feeling that such a reaction can only have been born out of an inability to understand the cultural elements. Personally I can't praise the film highly enough.

I am sure that the Sri Lankan audience appreciated it as a fascinating story, providing a rare peak into Switzerland, as well as a veritable piece of art.

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