Review: 'Vitus' is genius

“Vitus,” a Swiss film that made its brief, transitory bow here during the last San Francisco International Film Festival, enjoyed great popularity there — for all the right reasons. Fredi Murer’s simple, straightforward story about a young genius is charming, pleasant and memorable. On top of it all, it’s a great yarn with a surprise ending.

Little Vitus von Holzen is a multiple prodigy — a piano virtuoso at 4, a chess champion, incredibly bright and self-possessed, flying solo (literally) at 12. But he is also a real child, with the hopes and fears of anybody of any IQ. In a special contribution to the film, the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz plays Vitus’ grandfather; Ganz, a wise and supportive character with a big heart, makes up here for his terrifying act as Hitler in the superb “Downfall.”

Two children play Vitus through the years chronicled in the film as the boy is growing up, but the main task falls to Teo Gheorghiu, who portrays Vitus at age 12, when most of the story takes place. It is at this point that Vitus and his family face the downside of being a prodigy: being an outsider almost as much as a mentally challenged child would be.

Acting and direction are so seamless that you’ll find out only from studio notes that Gheorghiu is in fact a prodigy himself, actually performing the piano segments.

The yearning of a “different child” to be normal could be melodramatic or oversimplified, but “Vitus” gets it right, in realistic, sympathetic terms. You not only root for Vitus, but — in an unusual accomplishment by a commercial film — you understand him.

Consider also: the Swiss countryside, bursts of wit and self-deprecating humor, segments that challenge the audience to figure out what’s happening (rather than being spoon-fed information and manipulation), and an overall intelligence that supposes (rather optimistically) that we all share a little in Vitus’ gift of brains.

Vitus ***½

Starring Teo Gheorghiu, Julika Jenkins, Urs Jucker, Bruno Ganz

Written and directed by Fredi M. Murer

Rated PG

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

Screening at The Lumiere

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