“You must read this book. It has to do with us,” Nicole (Charlotte Rampling) tells Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart) midway throughThe Keys to the House. The book in question, Born Twice, by Giuseppe Pontiggia, is more than a prop in the film’s mise-en-scene. It is the literary source for the film’s story. Other references to the novel are prominently displayed in the film’s dedications. “To Andrea and Andrea,” reads the inscription in the opening credits. Andrea (Rossi) is the disabled actor who portrays Paolo, a fifteen year-old boy who suffers from spastic cerebral palsy. The other Andrea (Pontiggia), afflicted by the same condition, is the protagonist of the book and the writer’s son. At the end of film, another caption: “In memory of Giuseppe Pontiggia, who died in 2003."
Despite these powerful acknowledgments, the film’s narrative structure departs from that of the novel. While the book chronicles the relationship between a child and his family throughout the years, the film depicts a few days in the life of Gianni and his son Paolo, who meet for the first time fifteen years after Gianni abandoned Paolo following complications during childbirth that left the infant severely disabled and the mother dead. Father and son travel by train to Berlin, where the boy undergoes physical therapy. While Paolo seems to be at ease with familiar medical procedures and communicates easily with the hospital personnel, Gianni needs to learn a new language to come to terms with his surroundings, most importantly with his teenage son – metaphorically established by Gianni’s inability to understand German.
At the hospital, he meets Nicole, the mother of another young patient, who regards her bed-ridden daughter’s condition without any sentimentality. British actor Rampling speaks her own Italian dialogue for this role. Thirty years after the disturbing star-making portrayal of a concentration camp survivor who reunites with the SS officer who had held her captive in The Night Porter, Rampling continues to be a presence on the screen, a testament to a kind of cinema that does not retire female performers past the age of thirty-five. Her performance of the stoic mother is calm and understated. Rossi Stuart’s acting style is equally subtle, more along the lines of his role in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds than his bubbly delivery in Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio.
With its themes of family estrangement and eventual reconciliation, and the mental and physical disability of one sibling while the able-bodied relative is actually the one in need of healing, this film might be mistaken for an Italian remake of Rain Man. Yet it is not, most importantly because The Keys to the House does not delegate the portrayal of a disabled character to a handicap-free actor who returns to his “normal” life after the day’s work on the set is over. Moreover, the film does not rely on the inevitable histrionics of the lead actor who needs to deliver a convincing performance capable of earning an Academy Award for Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman in 1989, Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot in 1990).
By allowing self-representation, The Keys to the House takes on the challenge of overcoming the obstacles entailed in working with a handicapped actor. For example, because he could not memorize long bits of dialogue, Andrea Rossi was fitted with an earpiece that enabled him to repeat the lines as the director fed them to him. Yet, this technique did not disempower Andrea as an actor. Director Gianni Amelio (Lamerica, The Way We Laughed) stated that the boy was well aware that he was part of a collective effort, that the director depended on the actor, and the camera operator depended on both the actor and the director. Amelio also said that his choice to use his own name for the film’s father (Gianni) represented a reminder of the responsibilities that he assigned to Rossi-Stewart’s role as a father towards the character Paolo, as well as his own responsibilities as a director towards the actor Andrea. Andrea Rossi delivers a performance that can be best described by quoting the inscription in Pontiggia’s novel: “For the disabled who struggle not to be normal but to be themselves.”
– Gloria Monti