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by Mel Valentin

"Being a child prodigy isn't all it's cracked up to be."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Directed and co-written by Fredi M. Murer ("Downtown Switzerland," "Full Moon," "Alpine Fire"), "Vitus" is a leisurely paced, sentimental, whimsical coming of age tale, centered on, like "Searching for Bobby Fischer" and "Little Man Tate[/i] before it, on a child prodigy trying to make his way in a world that wants to celebrate him for his talents, but simultaneously treat him as a child (because he is), with all the lack of choice that treatment implies. Featuring an appealing, engrossing performance by a real-life musical prodigy, Teo Gheorghiu, in the title role and a strong, supporting turn by European art cinema stalwart Bruno Ganz ("Downfall," "Faraway, So Close!," "Nosferatu the Vampyre," "Wings of Desire," "The American Friend"), "Vitus" is never less than watchable, but it also plays it too safe to rise above its old school pretensions.

At six, Vitus von Holzen (Fabrizio Borsani) is no ordinary boy. Gifted with a genius IQ and raw talent behind a piano, Vitusí parents, Leo (Urs Jucker) and Helen (Julika Jenkins), fret about how best to nurture his talents. While neither parent shares Vitusí gifts, Leo is an inventor and Helen a business professional. Leo obtains a post at an electronics firm by selling the firmís owner, Mr. Hoffmann (Norbert Schwientek), on an innovative hearing aid design. Helen decides to abandon her career to nurture Vitusí talents. Leo and Helen enroll Vitus in a conservatory, hoping that the guidance and instruction provided by the conservatory will lead Vitus into a career as a concert pianist. Itís only when Vitus visits his woodworking-obsessed grandfather (Bruno Ganz) on weekends at his country home that Vitus feels ďnormal.Ē

At twelve, Vitus (Gheorghiu) splits his time between studying to become a concert pianist (more for his parents than himself) and high school. Younger and smarter than his classmates, Vitus doesnít fit in, but that doesnít stop him from making himself noticed, mostly for his disruptive, obnoxious behavior toward his instructors. Exasperated, the principal suggests Vitus take his final exams and move on to college. As his unhappiness and frustration grows, an accident intervenes, changing the future his parents have planned for him. Vitus also begins to learn about the real world: his fatherís company is in dire financial straits and his grandfather learns that his retirement pension will dry up after five years, leaving him penniless and, most likely, homeless. Vitus also runs into a long ago crush and former babysitter, Isabel (Tamara Scarpellini), now nineteen.

At first, Vitus hits all the character and story beats weíve come expect from a coming of age tale. The twist here is that Vitus is far from ordinary and his experiences are only partly universal. His parentsí desire to nurture his talents comes at a cost for Vitus, loneliness and isolation. But what starts off as story about an extraordinarily gifted boy attempting to find his way in a world where what he wants doesnít seem to matter abruptly shifts into feel-good wish fulfillment fantasy. To get there, Murer has to rely on Vitus acting illogically, but from that point on, which, to be fair, could be interpreted as Vitusí dream for himself, Murer takes Vitus into Wes Anderson territory, specifically Rushmore, a film centered on another extraordinarily gifted character, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), coping with a morally ambiguous real-world and an unrequited crush on an older woman.

On the plus side, Teo Gheorghiu gives an unexpectedly strong performance as the title character. Not surprisingly, veteran actor Bruno Ganz is never less than watchable as Vitusí grandfather and best friend. But their performances do little to make us forget "Vitusí" increasingly contrived, consequence-free plot turns. Once a determined Vitus sidesteps a few banking and stock market laws to keep his family solvent minus legal or personal repercussions, helps fulfill his grandfatherís dream to fly an airplane, and woos the older Isabel, we care less and less about the title character. While this kind of wish fulfillment fantasy may attract moviegoers interested in feel-good entertainment, other moviegoers will end up feeling frustrated and unfulfilled by "Vitus'" overlong Hollywood-style ending.

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originally posted: 07/07/07 03:55:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2007 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.

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  29-Jun-2007 (PG)
  DVD: 27-Nov-2007



Directed by
  Fredi M. Murer

Written by
  Fredi M. Murer
  Peter Luisi
  Lukas B. Suter

  Teo Gheorghiu
  Julika Jenkins
  Urs Jucker
  Bruno Ganz

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