Review: "The Violin"

Dennis Harvey January 8, 2008

Mexican cinema has been undergoing something of a renaissance lately, thanks largely to talents that many film lovers by now recognize: Alfonso Cuaron (“Y tu mama tambien”), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Amores perros,” “Babel”), Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and Carlos Reygadas (“Japon,” “Silent Light”).

These mid-career filmmakers are still young-ish, with plenty ahead of them (we hope). But it’s cheering nonetheless that even younger local talent is following their lead.

Writer-director-producer Francisco Vargas’ first feature “The Violin” (which opens Friday at SF’s Roxie and Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas) has won a pile of international awards to date. Had it surfaced in U.S. theatrical release a few weeks prior, it might also have yanked some foreign-language-feature prizes from the likes of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Persepolis.”

It’s a superb movie — and also something of a throwback, as it consciously recalls the 1930s-50s “Golden Age of Mexican Cinema” highlighted by such dramatic realists as early visionary Fernando de Fuentes and Spaniard Luis Bunuel in his “Los Olvidados” expat period.

Partly that’s because “The Violin” is shot in striking B&W images that alternately recall Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange. Partly because its mix of tense scripted melodrama, neo-realist techniques and politically daring content nods at the best of yesteryear’s leftist Latin American cinema. Partly because “The Violin” feels like an instant classic that might have been made in almost any modern Mexican era (political climate allowing).

Actual elderly one-handed vioninist Don Angel Tavira plays Don Plutarco, first seen busking for cash in a town with grandchild Lucio (Mario Garibaldi) while his son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) tries to access smuggled munitions intended for the campesino guerillas back home. Mission thwarted, they return to their village, only to find it overrun by federale troops. Local women and children have been chased out; menfolk are being brutally interrogated; Genaro’s wife and daughter have been “taken,” and may well be dead.

Still dedicated to the cause, and now additionally motivated by vengeance, Genaro becomes a fugitive. That leaves Plutarco and young Lucio in a makeshift evacuee camp, deprived of home, kin and crop. The elder takes it upon himself to return to their village, posing as an ignorant peasant only interested in how his corn harvest is doing under army occupation.

He brings along his violin, which proves lucky: The Captain (Dagoberto Gama) of these occupying forces is captivated by the old man’s fluency, having frustrated musical yearnings of his own. Plutarco has his own agenda: Sneaking back to the guerillas munitions hidden deep in the cornfields. Will he get away with it? Lives are at stake, and the prospects aren’t so hopeful.

Vargas mixes professional and non-pro actors to vivid effect — though Tavira’s acting prize at Cannes was awfully generous. (He’s perfectly cast but nonetheless very much an amateur.)

The story is involving, often intensely so. Still, “The Violin’s” ultimate hero might well be Martin Boege Pare’s cinematography, which is sometimes ravishing, sometimes raw, sometimes both at once — but always stunningly immediate and artful.