In looking after children, do parents also look after themselves? This question lies at the heart of The Keys to the House, Italian director Gianni Amelio’s nuanced exploration of a man’s transformation into a father. In the middle of the night at a Munich railway station, Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart) prepares to meet his son for the first time. Fifteen-year-old Paolo is sleeping aboard a train bound for Berlin, where Gianni will accompany him for medical treatment. Paolo was born with physical and psychological disabilities; his body is twisted and he walks with a cane, while his personality is uncommonly open and trusting. In the German hospital, they meet Nicole (Charlotte Rampling), who has a severely disabled child and, with curiosity and empathy, begins probing the rift between father and son.

Amelio was commissioned by Italian television to adapt a book, Born Twice, by Giuseppe Pontiggia; instead, he produced what he calls a “parallel” story, inspired largely by his meeting with Andrea Rossi, who plays Paolo. Stuart vividly conveys Gianni’s confused mixture of apprehension, shame, and love, while Rampling’s Nicole looks on knowingly. Sometimes the dialogue seems forced—Nicole’s pronouncements can appear oracular, and the chilliness of some German hospital workers occasionally comes close to caricature.

But Amelio’s camera captures with subtlety and without sentimentality the state of mind of a parent for whom every child running freely in the park is a painful reminder of another’s limitations. And if the film’s redemptive ending is a fairy tale, it’s one we willingly embrace.