LITTLE ROCK Vitus is a feel-good movie that you mightn't want to think about too long or deeply, lest you decide that just about everyone on screen is a more than a little creepy.
But most fairy tales are really horror shows, and the idea of children as anything other than miniature adults with the full complement of ugly motives is a relatively recent one. Director Fredi M. Murer obviously intends this movie to be a magical fable about the need for a child to be a child, and we're supposed to identify with the titular child phenomenon (Vitus is a pianist, a chess whiz and an economics genius) as he attempts to deny his specialness and become, a la Pinocchio, a real boy.
You might actually admire the kid, who's played by two real-life prodigies, 6-year-old Fabrizio Borsani and 12-year-old Teo Gheorghiu, for not being a movie moppet and retaining a high degree of difficulty. This much feels right on as Vitus develops from over-serious but charming munchkin to conniving opportunist, albeit one who seems to have genuine feelings for his sainted grandfather (Bruno Ganz, running as far away from the Hitler he played in Downfall as one can get).
Vitus' parents are yuppie strivers who congratulate themselves on recognizing their son's gifts and mean to see that he takes full advantage of them. Vitus is smarter than they are and knows it, so he fakes a head injury that renders him more or less normal. Like the bright kid who always misses a test question on purpose so as not to stand out as a brain, Vitus understands the social consequences of specialness. But he doesn't want to be one of the guys; he simply wants the freedom to plot his own course in life.
While a family drama about the problems particular to rearing a wonder child might have made for an intriguing movie, Murer's less interested in realworld dynamics than the superpowers he has given this golden child. So the second half of the film is less interesting as Vitus scams his parents, insults his teachers and - in an unnerving, flesh-crawling sequence - courts the teenager who had been his baby sitter.
He also finds a way to turn his beloved grandfather into an impossibly wealthy arbitrageur.
While we might forgive the implausibility of Vitus on the grounds that Murer is presenting us with a fable, the most satisfying scenes are those most rooted in reality. The casting of real prodigies is a savvy one; Fabrizio and Teo are amazing musicians. And, as the younger Vitus, Teo has a kind of unspoiled exuberance about him that can be read as extinguished in the icy Teo. The boys are enough alike, but their differences are telling.
Vitus was the official Swiss entry for the 2006 Oscars, and like Scott Hicks' Shine (1996), a movie it thematically resembles, it is tragedy masquerading as crowd-pleasing uplift. Vitus is one sad little man.
MovieStyle, Pages 43 on 09/14/2007