If this film doesn’t tear your heart out, I have to wonder if you have one.
Americans typically don’t do sentimental movies very well. The line between emotionally sentimental and sappy is very slippery for Americans. Italians, though, do it with something I’ll call élan (I have no idea what the Italian word for that is).
The Keys to the House is an Italian film that pulls nearly every heartstring imaginable, but in subtle ways. Paolo (Andrea Rossi) is the physically and mentally disabled child of Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart); Paolo suffers from what appears to be hip dysplacia and some left side palsy and is mentally about half his age (15). Gianni is Paolo’s father, but the first time they meet is on a train where Gianni takes Paolo from Italy to a Berlin hospital for initial tests. Paolo grew up with his mother’s sister and her husband after she died giving birth to Paolo. Gianni and she were never married. The implication was that Gianni wasn’t allowed to maintain a relationship, but he also didn’t try very hard either. They forge the beginning of a relationship while going through the testing process and in their hotel stay during the testing. While there, Gianni meets Nicole (Charlotte Rampling) whose daughter Nadine (Alla Faerovich) is in therapy in the same hospital. Nicole helps Gianni learn to cope with a burden that was new to him physically but not emotionally. Shortly after ending the hospital stay, Gianni takes Paolo to Norway to meet a pen pal. During this stay, Gianni offers Paolo the option of living with him; Paolo accepts. The movie doesn’t so much end as just stops with an emotional semi-catharsis by a roadside in Norway.
The only way I can describe the film that makes any sense is to picture Rainman without the financial incentives and necessities. Gianni is definitely selfish. He seeks to make emotional amends to himself by trying to help the son whose condition he knew but whose self and soul he did not. What happens is that the precocious Paolo, who seems no more ashamed of his condition than anyone else, inserts himself into Gianni’s life. Paolo does this in the easiest way possible; he is himself without pretense. While Gianni may have thought he was doing an act of contrition, during the course of the 100 minutes of the movie, he actually becomes contrite.
Andrea Rossi actually suffers from, if that is correct given the context of the film, the maladies of his character. He is one third of the reason that The Keys to the House legitimately pulls heartstrings rather than in some horribly sappy way (here I’m thinking of Forrest Gump). He is genuinely funny and at moments when he is supposed to be vulnerable, the vulnerability is subtle but almost overwhelming—I spent most of the last two-thirds of the movie near tears, but never actually crying (an amazing feeling because while it sounds like it would be frustrating, it isn’t at all).
Kim Rossi Stuart is the second third to making the movie a success. The difference between him and the Tom Cruise character in Rainman is that Stuart is fully aware of the child and the child’s condition. This means that he had fifteen years to come to some level of terms with it so that he could face the certain disapproval of the aunt and uncle who raised Paolo and to face any number of possibilities with Paolo himself. He handles the situation like a man would: he runs from the emotionality. Then he continues with his act of contrition with the help of Nicole. Through her, and through the joy that Paolo has in just living, Gianni is able to move from acting contrite to being contrite.
Charlotte Rampling is the final third. She is a fantastic actress. Like Meryl Streep, she speaks 2 languages that are not her native language through the movie. She plays a German who spent her youth studying in Italy, so both her German and her Italian are spoken without accent. She plays Gianni’s mentor through the process. She has the sad smile of someone resigned to the uncomfortable but who is not a martyr about it, just a realist. She seems to regain some of her own worth and individuality as she explains to Gianni what he is going to face. They strike up an uneasy friendship because of the underlying guilt that both characters have. Gianni’s is obvious—at one point he refuses to answer a simple question because he says he will only lie again. Nicole’s also turns out to be somewhat obvious, but still a little shocking when she says it. Her parting from Gianni is a type of graduation for him and a type of anti-catharsis for Nicole. She says that there are many times when she is with her totally dependent daughter and wonders why she, Nadine, doesn’t just die. After this revelation, she boards a subway. This is so very human and it also serves to counterbalance the dependence Gianni is beginning to feel towards Paolo.
In an act of biting off more than he could chew, Gianni takes Paolo to Norway as a surprise. Gianni wants Paolo to meet his pen pal, Kristina. Paolo is obviously very pleased by this, but there are a couple of moments where he gets a look of doubt over his face. He has built a world for Kristina out of whole cloth and he seems to realize, especially after arriving at her school on a Sunday, that meeting her may very well smash the intricate story he has constructed around her picture.
The following day, after agreeing to move in with Gianni and his wife and infant son, they drive, ostensibly to Kristina’s school. Paolo behaves as a typical 7 year old which is the first time since Gianni picked him up. Gianni seems to realize that he doesn’t have the emotional wherewithal to take care of Paolo. In a stark reversal of this sort of story, Paolo comforts Gianni after Gianni has a crying fit.
The Keys to the House is very subtle. It is emotionally wrenching, but in a slow manner minus all pity that it was nearly over before I understood the mechanism. Further, in nearly every scene with Paolo struggling to walk or Nadine struggling to talk the scene is contrasted with children running, playing, speaking. The contrast has the opposite effect of what is likely to be the first impression. Rather than highlight their difference, it puts Paolo and Nadine in a context of childhood. Paolo’s and Nadine’s struggles are obvious; the impact these struggles have on those who care for them is obvious; but in and of themselves, they are attempting to have the lives they would have were it not for their disabilities. In this way it is a very unsentimental sentimental film.
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