3½ stars (out of four)
"The Keys to the House" is a beautiful film on a very disturbing subject. Painfully honest and witheringly compassionate, this work by the brilliant Italian filmmaker Gianni Amelio is about a young unwed father, also named Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart), who after years of neglect tries to form a bond with his disabled teenage son, Paolo (Andrea Rossi).
Paolo is "a super kid," according to stern Alberto (Pierfrancesco Favino), one of the relatives of Paolo's mother who's been helping care for him all these yearsbut he's also "different." Victim of a birth injury, he walks and moves with great difficulty and needs frequent therapy at a German hospital, which is where his Italian dad meets him. When Paolo talks, he has the look of an inquisitive, twisted little bird, his head curling up from a permanent crouch, a big loose happy grin breaking out on his face. In many ways, he's still a childwith all the joy and hardship that suggests.
Paolo certainly is a super kidas we and Gianni will learnbut he's also the kind of child who is often neglected, even ridiculed. As for Gianni, he is hardly a super father; but the film shows him trying to make up for lost time, trying to assume emotional responsibility. So the two meet, bond, leave the facilityafter forming a friendship with another parent of a disabled child, Nicole (the multilingual Charlotte Rampling). And the trouble starts: the problems of parenting, redeeming the past and learning to live with a boy who's had to live his life apart.
Amelio, one of the true modern heirs of the great Italian neo-realist tradition, is a filmmaker of great subtlety, emotional precision and socio-psychological acumenand though his filmography contains only six features so far as director, three of them (1990's "Open Doors," 1992's "Stolen Children" and 1994's "Lamerica") won the European Film Critics best film award in their respective years. Though "Keys" is not Amelio's best, it has an emotional power almost equal to anything he's done.
"Keys" has a theme and structure similar to his other films. It's about fatherhood and family, constructed around a journey that becomes a moral and emotional pilgrimage. It also has an extraordinary sense of truth, mostly due to the actors and their performances: Stuart's absurdly handsome, increasingly poignant Gianni, Rampling's profoundly hurt and wise Nicole and, especially, Andrea Rossi's Paolo.
Rossi is himself disabled, and this heightens our response to him. But, like Pascal Duquenne of "The Eighth Day," an actor with Down syndrome who shared the Cannes Film Festival best actor prize with Daniel Auteuil, Rossi isn't being exploited. Instead, he proves, with every moment of his finely calibrated, heartwarmingly spontaneous performance, that he's a person and artist, not a victim.
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"The Keys to the House"
('Le Chiavi di Casa')
Directed by Gianni Amelio; written by Amelio, Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli; photographed by Luca Bigazzi; edited by Simona Paggi; production designed by Giancarlo Basili; music by Franco Piersanti; co-produced by Karl Baumgartner, Bruno Pesery; produced by Enzo Porcelli. In Italian, with English subtitles. A Lion's Gate Films release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:45. No MPAA rating: adult (mature themes and frank treatment of disabilities).
Gianni - Kim Rossi Stuart
Paolo - Andrea Rossi
Nicole - Charlotte Rampling