Of the thin trickle of foreign films that ever see proper U.S. release, the "subtitled moppets" subgenre seems to me the most superfluous - and when a film like Switzerland's "Vitus" comes along, press kit boasting an Antoine de Saint-Exupery quote on the cover, one can only prepare to be cloyed to death.
The film's protagonist, Vitus - seen at age six (played by Fabrizio Borsani) and, for the better part of the film, at age twelve (Teo Gheorghiu) - is a preternaturally gifted child: his IQ tests off the charts, he routinely shows up his teachers in class, and he tickles the ivories with a faculty to raise hopes of a concert hall future (Gheorghiu is a real-life piano prodigy). But wunderkind status comes with a heavy burden - everyone loves a boy genius except for the kids who have to share a classroom with the conceited prick, and Vitus's parents (Urs Jucker and Julika Jenkins) smother their shining progeny with such expectations that he's increasingly driven into the company of his grandfather (Bruno Ganz), a salt-of-the-earth codger content to noodle out wisdom in front of bucolic backdrops. Eventually the pressure gets to be so overwhelming that Vitus tosses himself off a ledge and feigns "normalcy" as a result of a concussion sustained in the drop, apparently so he can finally play with someone his own age and ditch his crisp button-ups to dress like any other little mall-chic wiener (it's here that "Vitus" flounders most egregiously, showing no sense for how kids relate among themselves). As for the rest, it should suffice to say that poignant wackiness ensues.
That such a plot might well veer into manipulative whimsy is a given, but "Vitus" doesn't even manipulate with a modicum of skill. Putting over material like this demands heightened emotional clarity, and the film consistently disappoints on this front - Pio Corradi's cinematography is uniformly underlit and murky, giving the impression that the film was left to soak in fetid dishwater, and Gheorghiu's handling of the central role is vague and unsatisfying. The kid can ripple his way along a keyboard admirably, but his repartee with the camera isn't nearly so electric; his translucent adolescent face never opens up to allow empathy. A scene where Vitus is rejected by an older crush seems unshaped, unsupervised, and utterly lax; director Fredi M. Murer, a veteran of the Swiss cinema, is largely unknown to American audiences - this fact is no accident.
The noteworthy exception to the general underperformance is Ganz. His part is a shopworn stereotype - the soulful rural counterpoint to Vitus's neurotic yuppie parents, his cluttered, organic farmhouse contrasting their antiseptic apartment block; for Ganz, a legend of German-language film, it's an open invite to put on a wistful Grand Old Man of the Cinema show. It's a thoroughly bogus character, but it's taken on with professional acumen, and Ganz manages to be quite touching at times, in spite of everything.
Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.