Having abandoned the boy at the moment of his birth, leaving him to be cared for by his sister-in-law and her husband, Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart) meets his 15-year old son Paolo (Andrea Rossi) for the first time on a train to Berlin. The boy is psychically and mentally disabled and is going to attend a specialist hospital in Berlin for medical tests and physiotherapy sessions. Now married and with a young child of his own, Gianni realises that he must to face up to his responsibilities as Paolo’s father and make up for lost time. While at the hospital, he meets a woman, Nicole (Charlotte Rampling) whose daughter Nathalie (Alla Faerovich) is also receiving treatment and although Gianni isn’t yet able to admit that he is Paolo’s father, the two parents become friendly.
Gradually Gianni comes to realise just what it means to be the father of a boy like Paolo and how other parents must cope with the acceptance of their children’s disability. Sympathy and compassion are required as are patience and understanding, but it requires much more than that, and it is not something that he can expect to just walk into after 15 years and be able to make right. Although her daughter’s condition is worse than Paolo’s, Nicole on the surface seems to be able to cope with the difficulties, but deep down she faces all the same pressures and self-doubts as Gianni.
Dealing very much with real people and real-life circumstances there is not a great deal of drama that takes place in The Keys To The House (Le Chiavi di Casa). This certainly comes as a refreshing change from the typical Hollywood issue film’s treatment of such material, elevating the disabled and those who look after them to levels of near sainthood. The tenor of Gianni Amelio’s film is quite clear – there is to be no moment of redemption or break-through for Paolo or Natalie, nothing that brings them out of the bodies they are trapped in and no revelatory moments for their parents. Rather than seek easy audience sympathy for the predicament of these unfortunate children as a lesser film might do, Amelio treats the disabled characters equally alongside the other characters without patronising them, focussing on the strength that is required for each one of them to face up to the lack of hope.
The film’s idea and treatment is however perhaps a little too simplistic and imbalanced. Although the actors are all superb at expressing these depths of anguish, disappointment, frustration and the disheartening moments of realisation of the immutability of their situation, the film perhaps ought to do so much more than show Kim Rossi Stuart and Charlotte Rampling acting out emotional turmoil. Undoubtedly their circumstances cause tremendous strain on their family relationships – Nicole gives some indication of this in her description of her husband’s reactions to his daughter’s disability – but none of this is actually shown. Apart from the characters taking their children to hospital and looking haunted, there is little evidence of the pressures they undoubtedly face.
The relationship between Paolo and Gianni however is so well defined that perhaps the film doesn’t need such conventional dramatic exposition. Even over the short period of the film’s running time, Paolo’s presence and personality comes across so strongly that the viewer can easily understand and feel the deep affection and bond between father and son even though they have only spent a couple of days with each other. Although the film escapes the confines and oppression of the Berlin hospital only for the final scenes where it turns briefly into a road-movie, it doesn’t end on the expected and unrealistic note of heartwarming sentiment. The father, despite his best efforts to relate to the boy, finds that the journey with his son is not going to be an easy road to travel, that there will be many roadside diversions and much heartbreak along the way.
The Keys to the House is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, Region 2 encoded and in PAL format.
The picture quality – striving for realism and often only using naturalistic lighting – is dully coloured and looks quite soft and hazy with a little bit of grain. Some cross colouration can be seen in backgrounds which also show some vertical lines of flickering digital artefacts. On the whole the picture quality is fine and suits the nature of the film.
The film comes with the choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks, both in the original Italian. The film isn’t particularly notable for making extensive use of a wide sound mix, but there are certainly differences to how the film sounds in each of the mixes. Dialogue often sounds dull and echoing and difficult to distinguish from the other ambient noises in the 5.1 mix, though it is a little easier to make out in the rather more straightforward 2.0 mix. It seems clear though that any issues with sound levels are down to how the original live sound was recorded.
English subtitles are provided and are optional. Although they are mostly fine they jump around the screen on a couple of occasions. At first I thought this might be careful placing to minimise obscuring information on the screen, but in one framed composition the subtitles jump from the bottom to the middle to the top of the screen for no discernable reason. This is a minor issue however and infrequent.
The disc comes with a full set of extra features, although surprisingly no Trailer, which I have seen theatrically and is quite good. Biographies and Filmographies are included for Gianni Amelio, Kim Rossi Stuart, Andrea Rossi and Charlotte Rampling. Looking for ‘The Keys to the House’ (5:45) is a standard EPK feature, made up of snippets of filming and interviews with the cast. The Behind the Scenes (43:14) feature is rather long and unnecessary, taking away from the realistic tone the film aims for. I was bored with this after 10 minutes of repetitive footage of the film crew setting up a scene and filming. On the other hand the nine Deleted Scenes (10:11) are all good and could easily have been included in the film. Clearly they were cut to tighten pace and reduce the running time. The Interviews with Kim Stuart Rossi (6:54) and Charlotte Rampling (9:58) are extended clips of those used in the EPK featurette. Each of the actors talk about their feelings on the film, Rossi stating that it was a longtime ambition to work with Gianni Amelio, Rampling (speaking in French) about working in Italian for the first time. All the extra features are subtitled in English.
The Keys to the House is not dramatically compelling viewing, portraying the difficult circumstances of a number of characters in an utterly realistic fashion with little sign of the film or the characters going anywhere – but the impression it gives is very deceptive. Kim Rossi Stuart in his interview among the extra features comments that even the slightest note of phoniness or contrivance in the relationships or characterisation could undermine the whole film, and it’s a tribute to Amelio’s direction and the acting that the film and characters follow wholly believable paths that capture their relationships without the need to over-dramatise or explain. There are some minor issues with the sound and picture quality on Artificial Eye’s release, but it nevertheless captures the whole tone of the film well and supports it with a good selection of extra features.