The secret life of children is fertile territory. The unsullied logic of those for whom preconceived notions and ossified received wisdom are phenomenon yet to come make for a piquant commentary on both. The innocence, the unrestrained emotion, and the intellect unfettered by the conventions of society are a potent combination in VITUS, a delightful Swiss import. It explores that territory from the point of view of its title character (doe-eyed Teo Gheorghiu), an 11-year-old mathematics and musical prodigy negotiating all too adult situations, from high-finance to first-love, with the single-minded, whole-hearted obsession that only the very young can muster without going mad.
His partner in adventure is his grandfather (Bruno Ganz), a carpenter who avoided the rat race and thereby preserved his own sense of childlike simplicity and wisdom. He views his son’s high-pressure, financially successful existence as missing the point. It’s a worldview that Vitus absorbs by osmosis while working at his grandfather’s side building wings in the old man’s woodworking shop. That such manual-labor provokes melodramatic horror in Vitus’ mother, concerned over the preservation of her son’s hands and, by extension, his musical gift, might be a source of amusement as well as consternation for both her son and her father-in-law. It’s also the perfect metaphor for the central problem in her relationship with Vitus. She just doesn’t get it. Neither does her husband. Well-meaning but overwhelmed, they plot out Vitus’ life without ever actually asking him for his input on the subject or allowing his own vast stores of creativity to take metaphorical wing.
Director/co-screenwriter Freddi M Murer draws on some of his own childhood experiences as a regular kid for the story. That, like Murer’s uncanny ability to remember and to recreate on screen what it is like to be a precocious child, adds a wistful quality to the proceedings. Vitus, for all his mathematical prowess, musical ability, and formidable intellect is a child, and one who longs for a childhood such as the one his peers are experiencing. The best moments are the ones between Vitus and his grandfather, a man of infinite innate wisdom who, like all the adults in the film, is unconditional in his respect for Vitus’ gifts, but, like few of those adults, understands, even cherishes, the child’s need for nurturing. Not that Vitus’ parents are bad parents, they’re just gobsmacked by what they have produced, their pride and penchant for showing him off to friends making their son feel more like a trophy than a person.
Being smarter than everyone around him, and more mature than some, but still a child, he rebels with a curious mixture of childishness and brilliance, going from locking his parents out of their apartment, to a daring move that hands him the life he wants, at the emotional expense of those around him.
Gheorghiu, a musical prodigy in real life (that’s him actually playing the piano) has the right mix of childlike emotion and preternatural self-assurance that comes of a kid living in an adult world. While his Vitus is completely at sea with the love of his young life, Luisa (Eleni Haupt), an older woman approaching 20 whom he attempts to wine and dine, there is no question of who is in charge when Vitus talks circles around a real-estate agent, or proposes a scheme that is obviously over the head of his beloved grandfather, who nonetheless assents without a qualm. And yet there is that glow that only a kid can have when he has bested as adult in the former case, or impressed the adult he loves best as in the latter. Ganz, in a captivating performance, one of the best of his considerable career, is the perfect mirror-image. With those infinitely soulful eyes glinting with mischief, he is a child in the best sense, though trapped in a grown-up body. He is the embodiment of joy.
VITUS considers the adult world, and the genius coming of age in it, with delicacy, compassion, and the subtle humor of the human comedy at large. Much that is universal can be read into this tale of an oddball kid trying to fit into a world that worships his attributes while still not knowing quite what to make of him as a person. It’s more than charming, it’s more than smart, it’s wise.