Vitus: (2006): Inspiring and Healing Power of Music

Director-writer Murers describes his film Vitus, a declaration of love to the inspiring and healing power of music.
His story of an exceptionally gifted child who is torn between pleasing his parents, who expect great things from him, and following his heart speaks to the universal struggles that many families face.

Vitus is played by Teo Gheoghiu whose music is featured in the film. Gheoghiu made his concerto debut in 2004 at the age of 12 and has since appeared with orchestras throughout Europe.

Special features on the “Vitus” DVD include The Making of Vitus, an interview with actor Bruno Ganz (“Downfall”), Teo Gheorghius screen test and directors commentary.

Fredi M. Murers “Vitus” (pronounced Veetus) was Switzerlands official 2006 Academy Awards entry for Best Foreign Language Film and was one of 2006’s most successful Swiss films.

Unfolding as a multi-generational family feature, “Vitus” centers on a talented young pianist, Teo Gheorghiu. By the age of 12, Vitus (played by real-life piano prodigy Teo Gheorghiu) is a gifted musician, whose parents have high hopes for him in a career as a classical pianist. Daily pressures of hours of musical practice, an overprotective but well-meaning mother (Julika Jenkins) and a fathers (Urs Jucker) burdened with precarious financial situation lead the boy to seek refuge with his eccentric grandfather (the great Bruno Ganz).

Writer/director Murer has a forty-year body of work under his belt, of which I have seen only two or three features, including the Locarno International Film Festival Golden Leopard winner Hohenfeuer (Alpine Fire), Vollmond and Downtown Switzerland. I mention that experience to indicate my (and fellow critics and viewers) ignorance of Murer’s workand Swiss cinema in general, but also to suggest that “Vitus” bears an old-fashioned quality in its storytelling, direction, and production values

Phrased differently, “Vitus” is an enjoyable film, mostly due to its intriguing story, one that will fall into the sub-genre of “Prodigy or Genius Children,” in the vein of Steven Zaillian’s superb American drama, “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993), the true story about the relationship between a boy prodigy (chess) and his parents, played by Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen

In the foreword of The Little Prince, author Antoine de Saint-Exupry wrote: All grown-ups were once children, although few of them remember it. Vituss parents are no exception. Thus, “Vitus” aims to be both a particular and universal saga about the struggle children face growing up, exploring the more specific dilemma of whether to choose the safe and secure future mapped out by parents determined to do whats best, for their child, or e responsive to their inner calling.

As a gifted piano player and mathematician, Vitus, a quintessentially precocious boy, faces the same dilemma of most children, “What Do I Wanna Do When I Grow Up. Vitus’s parents want him to cultivate his talents and become highly successful, but a small voice inside him is pulling him in a different direction, and he must choose between obeying his parents or following his dreams.

Ultimately, however, “Vitus” represents a loving cinematic statement to music’s inspiring and healing powers, and same can be said about other artistic pursuits. Furthermore, “Vitus,” like the late Truffaut’s best childhood yarns, is a declaration of love for life at its purest, liveliest, and most individual form: childhood.

Murer has been wanting to make a realistic portrait of childhood for at least seven years. In 1999, he began working on the script, which kept evolving almost until production began, in late 2005. The only thing that remained constant was the protagonist’s name, Vitus. And when you see the film, you realize that Vitus also serves as a metaphor for survival, and a synonym for child-artist.

Though telling the story of a gifted child, “Vitus” is more of a fable than fairytale, one that’s informed by current ideas, some funny other realistic, about our notions of childhood and talent. Those aspects come across in the film’s subtext rather than text.

Let me explain: Each generation determines the issues and zeitgeist of its time. Murer and his writers have tried to shed light on the booming youth culture, how children and teenagers have become an important demographic and economic factor (Hollywood as an industry cashes in on those attributes). These days, in their experience of the “real” world, teenagers rely less on their parents than on computers and other technological innovations. Indeed, the traditional way of passing down knowledge from one generation to the next has lost its significance since it’s the younger generation who helps their parents (and grandparents) to understand the rapidly-shifting digital and virtual world. It’s no secret that todays children have become their parents educators. For the computer illiterate parents, money and work are traditionally connected, whereas the digital generation of their children sees money and work as antagonists in a video game.

In this respect, “Vitus” is quite interesting in the way it perceived “normalcy” and “specialness” vis–vis the general trend of dumbing down in our society and the way society deals with people who are exceptionally gifted. In Murer’s film, Vitus is forced to lead a double life under the cover of normalcy and ordinariness in order to be accepted by others.

In the saga, Vitus is a central, perhaps even conceptual character, much like Oscar in the Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum or Alia in Frank Herbert’s Dune, both of which were made into films, the former a good one by Schlondorff and the latter a bad one by David Lynch.

One of the pleasures of “Vitus” the movie is that the boy is cast by different actors for the different ages. Teo Gheorghiu, who plays the twelve-year-old Vitus, is a good pianist and future maestro. Murer found him at the Purcell School in London, a school for musically gifted children. Despite having a Canadian passport and of Romanian origins, Teo was born and raised in Switzerland. Fabrizio Borsani, who plays the six-year-old Vitus, was still in kindergarten, but he, too, gives an honest performance

Julika Jenkins, a well-known stage actress in Switzerland, plays Vituss mother. Since Jenkins is half-English, Murer turned her character into a full English woman, is married to a Swiss man, which brings cross-cultural tensions to their marriage. Urs Jucker, also a Swiss theater actor, is creditable as Vitus’s scholarly father, an inventor with practical designs for his sons future.

Best of all is Vitu’s grandfather, played by Bruno Ganz, one of Europes most prolific and internationally renowned, best-known to American audiences for his bravura portrayal of Hitler in “Downfall” (German title is: “The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich”)

Blessed with abundant charisma and highly naturalistic style of performance, Ganz is a thespian that makes acting seem easy and effortless. Though his relationship with Vitus has some soft and emotional notes, it never slides into the sentimentality of classic features about older men (or grandparents) and young boys, such as “Kolya,” the Oscar-winning Czech film, or the Italian feature “Cinema Paradiso.”

Playing the Festival Circuit

Vitus has won various awards, while playing the global festival circuit, including Los Angeles’ AFI Fest, Chicago International Film Festival, and the new Rome/Cinema/Festa.

The Real Life Theo

Born in 1992 in Zrich of Romanian descent, Teo has already proven himself to be an exciting pianist. Teo has been a pupil at the Purcell School in London since 2001, where he is taught piano by the Head of Keyboard, William Fong. In 2004, he won first prize in the San Marino International Piano Competition, and in 2005, he was awarded first prize in the Franz Liszt International Piano Competition in Weimar, Germany. Teo made his concerto debut in 2004 at the Tonhalle, Zrich with Schumanns Piano Concerto, accompanied by the Zrich Chamber Orchestra. In 2006, Teo gave several performances of Beethovens Third piano concerto culminating in a sell-out concert at the Tonhalle. In 2007, Teo will give concerto performances of Mozarts 25th with the Zrich Chamber Orchestra, Rachmaninovs Second with Orchestra Musikkollegium Winterthur, and Mendelssohns Second with the Berne Symphony Orchestra. He will also give recitals in Zrich, at the Thun Bach Festival and at the Societa del Quartetto in Milan.

Cast

Vitus (age 6) Fabrizio Borsani
Vitus (age 12) Teo Gheorghiu
Mother Julika Jenkins
Father Urs Jucker
Grandfather Bruno Ganz
Luisa Eleni Haupt
Isabel (age 12) Kristina Lykowa
Isabel (age 19) Tamara Scarpellini
Hoffmann Jr. Daniel Rohr
Hoffmann Sen. Norbert Schwientek
Gina Fois Heidy Forster
Conservatory Director Daniel Fueter
Kindergarten teacher Livia S. Reinhard
Primary school teacher Susanne Kunz
Doctor Thomas Mathys
Neurologist Ursula Reiter
Headmistress Annelore Sarbach
Mathematics teacher Adrian Furrer
Dr. Knaak Frank Demenga
Landlord Stephan Witschi
Jens Stefan Schertenleib

Credits

Running Time: 120 minutes

Director Fredi M. Murer
Producers Christian Davi, Christof Neracher, Fredi M. Murer
Script Peter Luisi, Fredi M. Murer, Lukas B. Suter
Casting Corinna Glaus
Camera Pio Corradi
Set Design Susanne Jauch
Costumes Sabine Murer
Make-up Ronald Fahm
Martine Felber
Sound Hugo Poletti
Editor Myriam Flury
Music Mario Beretta