Le Chiavi Di Casa (Keys to the House) - Film Review

Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart) and his son Paolo (Andrea Rossi) in a moment of celebration.

The Christmas season is in full swing, and with it, the call to rampant and frenzied consumerism. One can hardly turn on the television or drive down the street without being bombarded by advertisements hawking the latest in saccharine Christmas cinema. But amid the prepackaged stories designed to jerk the heartstrings and sedate the mind, Gianni Amelio's "Le Chiavi Di Casa (The Keys to the House)" is a fresh reminder of what film should be.

As much a road movie as it is a relationship tale, the film picks up as Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart) meets his disabled son Paolo (Andrea Rossi) for the first time. Wanting to make amends after abandoning the boy at birth 15 years earlier, Gianni accompanies Paolo to a specialist in Berlin. A friendly and sociable boy despite his occasional outbursts, Paolo is quick to befriend his father and the rest of the ward. But the adjustment isn't so easy for Gianni. Uncertain of how to behave around the boy, he tries to hide his shame by coddling the boy. This catches the attention of Nicole (Charlotte Rampling), a French woman with a handicapped child of her own.

Nicole (Charlotte Rampling) shares her experience with Gianni.

Seeing right through Gianni's act, Nicole lends him support by sharing her experience and challenges him by refusing to let him fall into rationalizations and self-pity. Her resolve gives him something to aspire to, and the realization that life with Paolo will always be a test finally frees him to open up to his son. In the ensuing road trip, the pair begins to find their own intimacy amid the chaos inherent in their lives.

Cutting to the emotional core of the story without being exploitative, screenwriters Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli trim away the melodrama and deliver an honest portrait of a father getting to know his son, all the more affecting because of its lack of contrivances. Instead of treating Paolo as an invalid, they humanize the boy by allowing him to shine, to the point where he often seems more open and capable of forging social relationships than his "normal" father.

Mr. Amelio's unassuming direction strikes the perfect balance between documentary and cinema. Eschewing manufactured Speilbergian pseudo-sincerity in favor of realism and true emotion, the film provides no easy answers or pandering orchestral crescendos. Rather than trying to manipulate our emotions, Mr. Amelio often simply points the camera at his actors and lets them give us the father-son relationship in all of its messy, challenging glory. There is no "aha" moment here, no point in the film where everything magically begins to work. Instead of passively observing as we wait for the inevitable happy ending so often expected in these types of films, we share Gianni and Paolo's uncertainty and their journey as they go from being strangers to forging a genuine father-son relationship in the face of disability, fear and mistrust. By experiencing the full difficulty of their situation rather than a feel-good façade, we are able to comprehend the true beauty of those rare moments where Gianni and Paolo understand one another.

Gianni watching over Paolo.

This success is also a function of his brilliant cast, led by a courageous performance from newcomer Andrea Rossi. Mr. Rossi embraces Paolo's handicap and his gregariousness with equal aplomb, creating a sympathetic character without asking for pity. Mr. Stuart gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Gianni, capturing the love and concern for his son without shying away from the discomfort and shame he sometimes feels in the boy's presence. The two actors also share an incredible chemistry that lends an essential feeling of authenticity to their relationship. Ms. Rampling's blend of devoted motherhood and restrained patience born of a lifetime of hardship serves as the perfect counterbalance to the men's sometimes flaring emotions, keeping the film firmly grounded in reality.

This sense of authenticity is one of the reasons that "Le Chiavi Di Casa" works so well. By cutting out the nonsense, Mr. Amelio and his cast eliminate the distractions that other directors often focus on. He puts character and story at the forefront, and the work comes to life so vividly that we almost forget we're watching a film. Like Gianni and Paolo, we know that the road ahead may not be easy, that hardship is an everyday reality and effortless happy endings are the stuff of contrived fiction. But in those fleeting moments of genuine connection, we understand that the struggle is worthwhile.  

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