Acclaimed director Gianni Amelio presented his new film "The House Keys" to enthusiastic audiences on Thursday amid hopes one of Italy's own would win the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion this year.

Six years after he landed Venice's top prize with "The Way We Laughed" Amelio was back with a moving story about Gianni, a young father who meets his mentally and physically handicapped son for the first time when the boy is already 15 years old.

They travel together to Berlin for Paolo to receive physical therapy at a specialized hospital but end up escaping to Norway on an emotional and visually stunning journey.

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The star and inspiration of the film is undoubtedly Andrea Rossi, 16, a first-time actor who plays Paolo and has the same disabilities as his character.

"I modeled the story on him," Amelio, who spent months with Rossi before beginning filming, told a news conference.

The movie was loosely based on Giuseppe Pontiggia's novel "Born Twice," but Rossi gave Amelio a "new story to be told."

In the film, Paolo's spontaneity and funny verbal spars alternate with sharp mood swings and a helplessness that lend a layer of tension to the story.

"It was a complex work that had a special sense of grace thanks to the presence of Andrea. When he arrived on the set all of our problems, big or small, disappeared," said Amelio, perhaps best known for the 1992 film "Il Ladro di Bambini (Stolen Children)."

CHEERED AT THE LIDO

The cast is completed by Italy's Kim Rossi Stuart as Gianni and British-born Charlotte Rampling as a mother who has taken her handicapped daughter to be treated at the same hospital.

"(Gianni Amelio) wanted to make a film about human relations, not fake and rehearsed," Rampling said. "I don't regret it for one minute."

"The House Keys" was cheered by the mostly Italian audience at a preview screening on the Lido where it is facing off against 21 other films in the main competition, including two other Italian movies that had considerably cooler receptions.

The favorites so far are Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake" about an abortionist in 1950s England and "3-iron," a poetic film about love and solitude by Korea's Kim Ki-Duk, which was a "surprise" entry in the competition announced earlier this week.

"The House Keys," "Le Chiavi di Casa" in Italian, will open in 250 cinemas across the country on Friday, a record number for an Italian movie premiering at the Venice festival.