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Vitus

in trying not to tell a highly conventional tale, Vitus instead tries to tell a highly unconventional one.

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Keyed up: Teo Gheorghiu as child pianist Vitus
  • Keyed up: Teo Gheorghiu as child pianist Vitus
In the olden days we called them eggheads: kids who knew too much and weren't afraid (or didn't know enough) to hide it.

Vitus, age 6, is such a child. When he hears his parents, Leo and Helen, use the word "paradoxical," he wants to know what it means. In school, he tells his classmates about global warming and makes some of them cry. But most of all he likes to play the piano. In the olden days we called him a prodigy, on his way to becoming a virtuoso.

In Vitus, Swiss writer/director Fredi M. Murer does more than dazzle us with genius. For a while he creates an intelligent character study of Vitus and his parents, jettisoning most of the sentimentalism we've come to expect of stories like this in favor of a disquieting realism.

Leo is the genial inventor of a stylish hearing aid, to be worn proudly for all to see. He insists that Vitus develop his gift, full steam ahead. Helen argues for a slower approach. But at a party of Leo's snobby business associates, she encourages Vitus to play, and looks embarrassed when he plays badly -- until, like the cagey little phenom he is, he quits the stupid act and lets it rip.

How can nature explain a child like this? How can we stand in his way? "Even the experts say it's now or never," Helen explains when she finally decides, without much goading, to accelerate his education. By 12, Vitus is a math whiz as well, dubbed "Scheisstus" (in English: "Shitus") by his classmates. His kindly country grandfather (Bruno Ganz), a craftsman, encourages him to be whatever he wants. He says he just wants to be "normal."

Art, they say, is an act of ego and arrogance: It has to be, or the putative artist won't dare to think he has something revolutionary to say. So as Vitus' temperament changes -- as he grows aggressive and petulant -- Murer allows us to witness the emergence of the artist, along with his exit from our world into his. A master musician, for whom Vitus refuses to play, tells him that what makes a great pianist is "cold rationality and a warm heart." Vitus replies: "That's why I want to be a vet." He's being a smart ass, but he also clearly knows himself: He prefers to play with irrational gusto, and he cares about no one's needs or desires but his own.

In the middle of Vitus, Murer's story takes a rather contrived twist that undermines its plausibility. This is disappointing, especially compared to the more interesting story of coping with difference. It finally seems that in trying not to tell a highly conventional tale, Vitus instead tries to tell a highly unconventional one. The better choice, I think, remains somewhere in between, still waiting to be told. In German, Swiss German and occasional English, with subtitles.

Starts Fri., Aug. 10. Regent Square

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