For the hyperaware 6-year-old Vitus von Holzen (Fabrizio Borsani), it isn't hard to see the moment he changed from a beloved and indulged precocious boy to a child prodigy whose future must be managed. It happened the night his formerly bohemian parents were celebrating their upward mobility with a party at their newly-furnished modest apartment, working hard to impress the colleagues of the kid's father, Leo (Urs Jucker), an engineer and inventor.
Resentful of Leo's rapid ascent, some questioned his wife, Helen (Julika Jenkins), when she claimed Vitus could play the complex classical pieces whose sheet music rested on their upright piano. So Helen collects her petulant son to prove them wrong. Trotted out to perform for the guests, Vitus is reluctant and defiant, but soon capitulates to his mother's wishes, a response that would mark his relationship with her for years to come.
What's remarkable about this scene, and all of the charming Vitus, is the light touch of Swiss director Fredi M. Murer, who keeps everything refreshingly low-key. There's very little Sturm und Drang in the German-language film (punctuated by bits of crisp English from the British-born Helen), even as it leaps forward to find an arrogant 12-year-old Vitus (Teo Gheorghiu) on the crest of adolescence, and already more adult than everyone around him.
As his father pursues his career, and his mother turns her son's music into her work, Vitus only dreams of being normal, absolutely ordinary. He can achieve that goal somewhat when he heads to the countryside to visit his grandfather (Bruno Ganz), who treats the boy with an adoration that's not linked to his abilities (although he does appreciate the challenging chess games).
In a sudden, fairy tale-like twist, Vitus seems to have his dearest wish granted. And here's where Murer (who wrote the script with Peter Luisi and Lukas Suter) begins to really explore the blessings and burdens bestowed on Vitus. Stripped of his fated future, Vitus finally achieves the control he's longed for, and begins to understand not only his true abilities, but his limitations as well.
Murer culminates the film with a Hollywood-style grand gesture, leading to a pat, happy ending, but it's hard to fault him for wanting the best possible outcome for the lively wunderkind. With a big-hearted vitality, Vitus allows a kid who's been pushed out of childhood by his extraordinary abilities to find his own way home.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Sept. 21-22, and at 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].