(Le Chiavi di Casa)
Directed by Gianni Amelio. Italy. 2004.
Reviewed by Alan Pavelin and Howard Schumann
The Stolen Children has now been at least equalled in merit by Amelio’s latest, The Keys to the House (Le Chiavi di Casa). A variation on the same theme, this is a true story based on an autobiography by Giuseppi Pontiggia. It tells of the first-ever encounter of Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart) with his 15-year-old disabled son Paolo (Andrea Rossi), whom he abandoned at birth when the mother died. Gianni is now required to take the boy to a clinic in Berlin. He is at first extremely reluctant, but is gradually changed by the experience and learns to overcome his fears and prejudices. He is helped along the way by an older French woman Nicole (superbly played by Charlotte Rampling, showing an admirable multilingualism) who has a much more severely disabled child, to whom she is utterly devoted, at the same clinic.
Unlike some respected directors (Michael Winterbottom?), Amelio has never resorted to gratuitous sex and/or violence to spice up his films. He sticks clearly to a humanistic agenda dealing with the problems of ordinary people, often the underprivileged, and how they overcome them through courage and determination, being changed for the better in the process. His award-winning Lamerica (1992), about the plight of Albanian refugees, was scandalously never released in the U.K.
In The Keys to the House, the wonderfully uninhibited Paolo (one is intrigued to know how much Andrea Rossi is playing himself) contrasts starkly with most of the people with whom he comes into contact, with their fears and inhibitions. Indeed this is not a film about disability, it is a film about "normal" people’s reaction to it. Paolo is not a person to be pitied, he is a person full of joie de vivre who acts as a catalyst for breaking down the anxieties of his father and anyone else he meets.
Amelio stands very much in the tradition of Italian neo-realism. Revered by French critics, who paid this film the supreme compliment of being "Rossellinian", he prefers shooting in the street rather than the studio, and is unafraid to allow natural sounds to dominate over the actors’ voices, as in a railway station sequence.
The Keys to the House is a film which should be seen by anyone who loves the humanist and neo-realist traditions of cinema, the cinema of Renoir, De Sica, Rossellini, Satyajit Ray, Ken Loach. For me it is one of the great films of the early 21st century, along with A One and a Two. . . and The Return. No special effects, no great melodramatic moments, just a wonderfully affecting and understated look at real life.
Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart), an appliance worker in his mid-thirties, lives with his wife and young son in Milan, Italy. Fifteen years ago, he fathered a handicapped boy named Paolo (Andrea Rossi) with a teenage girlfriend who died during childbirth. At the request of the boy's uncle (Pierfrancesco Favino) who raised Paolo, Gianni meets his son for the first time en route to a Berlin hospital where the boy is scheduled to undergo a new round of testing at a hospital for handicapped children. Paolo, now a teenager, has physical and mental challenges resulting from childbirth trauma and walks with the aid of a cane. The father-son reunion is fraught with difficulties and many awkward moments. In spite of his difficulties, Paolo is bright, fun loving, and full of charm but has mood swings and erratic mental patterns. Gianni is hesitant at first, uncertain how to react to his unpredictable behavior and stumbles when trying to help him dress or assist him in going to the bathroom.
Paolo, though trusting, views Gianni with some embarrassment and asks him to leave during some invasive hospital testing. At the hospital, Gianni meets another parent (Charlotte Rampling as Nicole) whose daughter Nadine (Alla Faerovich) is severely handicapped with Cerebral Palsy. Her empathy and wisdom help him come to terms with the guilt he feels for having abandoned his son and increases his awareness of the difficulties involved in raising a handicapped child. When the hospital therapists push Paolo to the point of exhaustion with their exacting regimen, Gianni instinctively removes him and takes him on a road trip to Norway in hopes of meeting a young girl Paolo knows only through an exchange of photos. On the journey back, Gianni comes face to face with the true requirements of his commitment to Paolo and the result is deeply moving.
The Keys to the House is an involving drama about the difficulties involved in taking responsibility for past mistakes and developing the inner strength to cope with the results. The acting is uniformly outstanding, especially that of Andrea Rossi, a young Italian actor with Muscular Dystrophy, who brings Paolo fully to life. Though some elements of the plot are puzzling, Keys to the House is not about plot but about feelings and relationships. It is a courageous film that sparkles with authenticity and tenderness. It avoids easy consolations and trite solutions, challenging us to confront our limitations, particularly our inability to always be the person our children need us to be. While The Keys to the House may not be Amelio's best film, it is his most emotionally compelling and fully establishes him as being in the very front rank of contemporary directors.
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