If Rushmore were shot like a bland TV movie and featured a hero who's genuinely brilliant rather than whimsically precocious, it might look a lot like Vitus, Switzerland's official entry for the 2006 Oscars. But that doesn't begin to describe the bizarre tone of this turgid crowd-pleaser, which follows a pint-sized piano (and chess and math and economics) prodigy whose mirthless intensity seems more appropriate to The Omen. For a film that ultimately wants to leave the audience cheering—or at least in good cheer—Vitus is strangely chilly, which has something to do with Teo Gheorghiu's near-frightening remoteness in the lead role, but also with relationships forged as much through calculation as affection. It would be one thing if the awkwardness were intentional, but co-writer/director Fredi M. Murer exhibits so little control over the tone, the pace, the performances, and the cinematography that it's hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Played charmingly as a child by Fabrizio Borsani and far less winningly as a pre-adolescent by Gheorghiu, the eponymous character displays a limitless intellectual capacity from an early age. Though gifted in every subject—he plays chess against himself in kindergarten, and reads the Financial Times on the train—Gheorghiu takes a special liking to the piano and quickly proves to be a budding virtuoso. His parents (Julika Jenkins and Urs Jucker) are eager to seize on his talent and show off their prize pony, but they wind up putting him in schools where he's an outcast, denying him the pleasures of childhood. Gheorghiu's only trusted ally is his grandfather, Bruno Ganz, a humble carpenter who recognizes his abilities, but also understands that he's just a boy, too.
Much like Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore, the pre-sexual Gheorghiu pursues a much older and more experienced woman, in this case an old babysitter who fails to realize the depths of his infatuation. Vitus shoots for a similar mix of poignancy and humor, but Gheorghiu's bad-seed severity has a creepy undercurrent. The second half of the film turns on a clever twist meant to restore him to normalcy, but it doesn't really take once he decides to start dabbling in the stock market, flight simulators, and real estate. Murer hastily wraps things up with an uplifting sequence of events, but by then, it's too late—this growing boy needs an exorcist, not a mentor.