An intensely focused two-character drama about a young father's coming to terms with his severely handicapped son, Gianni Amelio's grippingly directed pic radiates a warm humanity and uplifts the spirit. Film will undoubtedly win critical kudos and multiple prizes this year, but given subject matter will require astute handling to reach out to wide auds.

An intensely focused two-character drama about a young father’s coming to terms with his severely handicapped son, Gianni Amelio’s grippingly directed “The House Keys” radiates a warm humanity and uplifts the spirit. Subtle rather than sentimental, it lacks easy tears though attentive viewers will find it lacerating enough. Inspired by Giuseppe Pontiggia’s autobiographical book “Born Two Times,” film will undoubtedly win critical kudos and multiple prizes this year, but given its difficult subject matter will require astute handling to reach out to wide audiences. Although the local favorite didn’t win a prize at Venice, it enjoyed a fast opening weekend at the Italo B.O.

Physically and mentally damaged during a difficult delivery when his mother died giving birth to him, Paolo (Andrea Rossi) has always lived with his mother’s family. He is 15 when his father, Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart), decides to see him for the first time and take charge of him; remarkably, his reasons are never explained.

Film’s opening scene in a train station, where Gianni and a relative (a brooding Pierfrancesco Favino) arrange the hand-over, creates an air of mystery. All viewers are told is that Gianni is taking Paolo to Berlin for treatment from specialists.

Their first meeting on the train is a controlled shock. The boy is smiling and communicative, but the sight of his twisted limbs clumsily propelling his shrunken body through the train aisles with the help of a special cane is as wrenching for the viewer as it is for Gianni. They hit it off, however, and check into a Berlin hotel for some quality time before going to the hospital.

Slowly, Gianni realizes both the extent of Paolo’s illness and his great power to love and inspire love. Amelio and his scriptwriters Sandro Petragli and Stefano Rulli illustrate this in a few well-chosen scenes, like a torturous physical therapy session in which Gianni drops awkward embarrassment and has an outburst of compassion.

In the hospital, he sees young patients even more handicapped than Paolo, which the camera neither lingers on nor hides. It is there that he meets Nicole (Charlotte Rampling), who has dedicated her life to taking care of her handicapped daughter, Nadine (Alla Faerovich). She has acquired a deep wisdom from the experience, and tries to put Gianni on the same path. Though Rampling’s scenes are brief, she brings a special poignancy to them that is quite moving.

Cut off from Italy, from family and friends, even from their native language, Gianni and Paolo soon develop a close bond. Filled with love for the boy, Gianni surprises him with a trip to Norway to visit a pen pal. Their blossoming but still fragile relationship is put to the final test in a subtle, enigmatic conclusion.

Time and again, Amelio goes back to Gianni’s befuddled, guilty reactions toward the son he had so long rejected. Rossi Stuart’s handsome, guileless face stands in for the viewer as he struggles to first deny, then confront his fear and shame at Paolo’s differences. Yet it is young Rossi who dominates the film, not with acting but with his physical presence. His cheerfulness and moments of humor keep the tone light and bearable.

The low-key mood is well conveyed by Luca Bigazzi’s quiet but never somber lighting, and sure-footed camerawork that isolates the two protags. Franco Piersanti’s musical score makes a quiet but strong emotional impact.

The Keys to the House

Italy - Germany - France

Production

An RAI Cinema/Achab Film/Pola Pandora Film Produktion/Arena Films co-production. (International sales: Lakeshore Intl., London.) Produced by Enzo Porcelli. Co-producers, Karl Baumgartner, Bruno Pesery. Directed by Gianni Amelio. Screenplay, Amelio, Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli.

Crew

Camera (color), Luca Bigazzi; editor, Simona Paggi; music, Franco Piersanti; production designer, Giancarlo Basili; costume designers, Piero Tosi, Cristina Francioni. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 8, 2004. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Gianni - Kim Rossi Stuart Paolo - Andrea Rossi Nicole - Charlotte Rampling
With: Pierfrancesco Favino, Alla Faerovich.
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