Sentiment has a nasty habit of making it hard for films to deal with life's most important elements without seeming phony. Drop in the wrong music, and a somber funeral scene can feel as canned as a Hallmark card. Hold a shot of a smiling child too long, and gagging is sure to follow. Italian neo-realism provided one of the most effective tools in combating sentimentality: Shooting low to the ground and with a minimum of heartstring-tugging, the movement allowed directors to craft humble stories of everyday struggle into profound statements on what it means to be human. Proper neo-realism faded out a few years after its post-World War II inception, but its elements have remained influential for many filmmakers.
If the tradition has a committed torchbearer, it's Gianni Amelio (Lamerica, The Way We Laughed) and with The Keys To The House, he's made a film that could hardly have been told in any other style without being insufferable. Inspired by Giuseppe Pontiggia's autobiographical novel Born Twice, it unfolds over a few days in the life of a father and son who begin the film as strangers. Kim Rossi Stuart plays the father, a decent-seeming man who gets a chance to redress a decision he now regrets: Abandoning his physically and mentally disabled son (Andrea Rossi) after the childbirth death of the boy's mother. Charged with taking Rossi to a Berlin clinic by the boy's aunt and uncle (and longtime guardians), Stuart quickly discovers that redemption goes beyond simply showing up. He likes Rossi immediately, and enjoys spending time with him, but as one day stretches into several, he finds his feelings changing in unexpected ways. His attachment deepens and he considers adopting Rossi even as he comes to recognize the life-sucking enormity of taking over his care.
More a snapshot than a portrait, Amelio's film deals only with how Stuart's feelings develop over a few days. But it's a revealing snapshot, full of telling details. In Berlin, Rossi has a series of uncomfortable encounters with Charlotte Rampling, playing a woman for whom child-care has become a full-time job (and who makes little attempt to hide her bitterness about it). The film's most powerful scene captures the moment where the draw of paternity becomes overwhelming, but Amelio never suggests that love conquers all, and The Keys To The House never glosses over the difficulty of caring for a handicapped child. Rossi (who is handicapped himself) gives the film a magnetic presence, playing the part as a mix of sweet-natured good intentions and frustrating limitations. He's the kind of kid who's so hard not to love, it's easy to forget along with Stuart just how hard it would be to have him around.