Proving once again that European directors know how to deal with sensitive subjects without descending into American-style schmaltz, director Gianni Amelio has made a probing film about the relationship between severely disabled children and their parents. The Keys to the House pulls no punches-it shows the intense love that can exist in such relationships, but also how it forces otherwise normal adults to give up everything for the care of their children.

Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart) ran out on his handicapped child at birth. Now 15 years old, Paolo (Andrea Rossi, a real disabled teen) has been raised by his mother's family all his life. Gianni wants to establish a relationship with his son (why is never really explained, but guilt seems to be as good a reason as any), so he decides to take him to Berlin, where the boy receives special treatment at a pediatric hospital.

Paolo is deformed physically, but has normal intelligence and can communicate perfectly well. Yet even though he's open and friendly, he's also immature and given to sudden tantrums. The film carefully delineates not only the growing relationship between the father and his son, but also Gianni's realization that taking on this responsibility will be a full-time job.

At the hospital, Gianni meets Nicole (Charlotte Rampling), mother of a severely disabled daughter. Her experiences help Gianni understand the depths of devotion and caring that will be necessary for him to handle Paolo. But, in the central scene of the movie, she also admits that the past 20 years of her life have been given over exclusively to her daughter's care, and that there are many days when she says to herself, "Why doesn't she die?" This sense of honesty is what gives The Keys to the House its essential strength, and sets it apart from U.S. weepies like I Am Sam.

Amelio's film is composed of a series of vignettes that add up to a portrait of love and pain. Paolo undergoes grueling rehabilitation exercises. Paolo plays the TV so loud it drives Gianni crazy. Gianni throws Paolo's cane away, in an attempt to force him to walk without it. It's a very quotidian look at the subject, but all the more realistic because of it.

In the final scene, following one of Paolo's tantrums, Gianni breaks down in tears, the frustration of what lies ahead finally destroying his composure. As the boy tries to console his father, the camera pulls back, and we are left with the duo, arms around each other, facing an uncertain future. It's an honest moment, in a film that treats a difficult subject with the delicacy of real art.