Dir. Gianni Amelio, 2004, Italy/Germany/France, 105 mins
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Andrea Rossi, Kim Rossi Stuart
The relationship between a father and a son is often a troubled one, and the distance created when the adult has abandoned the child at an early age only serves to heighten any possible difficulties between them. This film, which is loosely based on Giuseppe Pontiggia's book Born Twice, attempts to show what happens when two people in this position meet again.
Thus, on a train bound for Berlin, Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart) is reunited with his 15-year-old disabled son Paolo (Andrea Rossi). Although they share the same flesh and blood, the pair of them are now more like strangers because they have never met before. Gianni ran out on his infant during a complicated birth, in which the boy's mother died. Hence, Paolo had to be brought up by her relatives, whilst Gianni now has a new family of his own.
The urban sprawl of Germany's capital city seems to stand as a metaphor for the early unease between Gianni and his son. Its grid-like street pattern, spotless trains and glimmering hi-tech buildings create a sterile atmosphere that dampens the mood, as the two of them try to establish a relationship. However, this is obviously very difficult: Gianni feels insecure and afraid because of how he's acted in the past, and Paolo has severe mood swings.
The hospital where Gianni has to take his son for a rigorous course of physiotherapy is the apotheosis of Berlin's sanitised environs. Here, in an antiseptic white-walled sparseness, the nursing staff put him through his paces with Teutonic efficiency. However, although they appear to be caring, in some ways they are like automatons. Gianni senses this, and realises that only he can give his son what he really needs: love and affection.
He is helped into making this decision by the kindness of another parent, Nicole (Charlotte Rampling), whose daughter is also convalescing in the clinic. She acts as a conduit for the guilt Gianni feels for deserting his son, and their heartfelt chats are some of the most tender and touching moments in the movie. These tête-à-têtes are influential in making Gianni change his course of action, so he stops Paulo's treatment, and then takes him to Norway to meet a pen friend that the adolescent thinks is his girlfriend.
On the ferry across, Gianni throws a cane into the water: the very cane that his son depends on to walk unaided. Symbolically one suspects that from now on it will be his kindness and diligence that will be the new rod to support the teenager. After a troubled start to their relationship, the fact that they finally form this connection is aided by the purity of a breathless Nordic landscape, which is beautifully brought alive by Luca Bigazzi's cinematography.
What probably stands out more than anything in this Gianni Amelio-directed picture, is the fine acting performances. Rossi, who is crippled in real-life, is superb in his first major acting role. Indeed, his portrayal of Paolo has just the right mixture of joie de vive and pathos. This makes us appreciate and understand the difficult nature of his disability without inducing us to continually feel sorry for him. Amelio says "I wanted Andrea because it's fascist to say that a disabled person can't do anything". He also says that it was a pleasure to work with Andrea because you don't have to deal with the problems created by normal actors such as capriciousness and ego. When asked if the film met his expectations, Amelio said "I don't think any film ever satisfies the expectations better than this one."
Rampling, too, is excellent and uses her vast experience to produce a subtle, commanding performance that enhances the narrative.
Although this feature is a valid attempt to try and dissect the nature of physical and psychological impairment, perhaps one slight drawback is that we've seen this type of picture so often before. Movies like Jean de Florette and My Left Foot also depicted severely disabled characters in an engaging, intelligent way. However, at least Amelio was brave enough to cast an actor who was really debilitated by a handicap. Added to which, he eschewed away from the Hollywood tradition of handling such subject matter in an overtly saccharine or sentimental fashion. Thus, in essence, The Keys of the House is an excellent attempt to try and depict the shifting relationship between a guilty father and the son on which he selfishly walked out.