" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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The setting is Mexico, presumably, although it could be anywhere peasant rebels fight an oppressive national military.

Three generations of Hidalgo men are fighting. Genaro (Gerardo Taracena, Apocalypto) is one of the leaders of the movement, and his father Plutarco (Ángel Tavira) and his son accompany him down to the village for an arms deal. The place is raided before the deal goes through, and they head back to their camp empty-handed. When they arrive, they discover the camp has been raided too and they must pull back to the hills.

While Genaro strategizes with the rebel leadership, Plutarco quietly takes it upon himself to try to recover some of the arms from their camp.

Crossing Boundaries

Plutarco plays for the military commander
Plutarco plays for the military commander

The heart of the movie kicks in nearly halfway through. (The setup takes so long that The Violin feels like two movies.) Plutarco is stopped at a military checkpoint between the hills and the former rebel camp.

Plutarco is disarming. His long, creased face; his spry, hobbling gait; and his stump of a right hand make him seem like a trustworthy, harmless old man. He explains that he’s a musician, a farmer and a man of peace, all of which are true. His only lie is a lie of omission to protect his family. But the commander of the checkpoint is smart, and he refuses to let Plutarco cross. The commander confiscates his violin and sends Plutarco away. But Plutarco comes back the next day and tries again. And again. Slowly, the camp commander warms to Plutarco and even asks for violin lessons from the old man. There is always tension between the two men, but their mutual love for music may bridge the gap between them.

Rebel Music

The best thing about The Violin is the Plutarco’s face. The photogenic Ángel Tavira is, in real life, a one-handed musician (and ethnomusicologist). He’s a rare and valuable find for writer/director Francisco Vargas, who shot a documentary about Tavira before making The Violin. Tavira is the perfect casting choice, and without him, The Violin would be a much less interesting movie.

There are some other good points to The Violin. Shot in Black and White, it offers an occasional stunning composition, like when Plutarco crests a hill in silhouette, or when Genaro’s sturdy, indigenous face is shown in high-contrast close-up. But there are also times when the picture quality suffers. In particular, one emotionally weighted shot pans down Plutarco, across the ground, and up a tree as he tells his grandson the myths of their people. The pan isn’t smooth, though. It begins jumping, as though the shot were slowed down using a bad software algorithm. It was clearly meant to be an important, poetic shot, but the apparent technical limitations take away its power.

Still, the human story makes up for most of that. When the border commander (who tortured one of the rebels in the first scene of the movie) talks to Plutarco of music, he softens. And as Plutarco keeps pressing to be allowed to cross, we see how steel-hard the gentle-looking old man can be.

DVD Extras

The Violin is released under the Film Movement label (Film Movement is a DVD-of-the-month club for festival and art-house movies). As such, about half of the extra features pertain to Film Movement. There’s even an advertisement on the DVD, but it’s for Stella Artois, who as an advertiser, makes a point of producing commercials that look like art-house films. This commercial stars Ron Perlman (I think) and is as entertaining as any short film.

As on all Film Movement DVDs (apparently), this one includes a short festival film as well. This one is a French schoolroom charmer called Kisses for The World. Its bright colors and exuberant cartoonish tone clashes with the serious, human, bleak feature. Perhaps that was an intentional contrast, but I’m glad I watched the short on a different day from the feature.

The DVD also contains biographies of the director and the principal cast.

Picture and Sound

As noted in the review, the picture quality is uneven, swinging from gorgeous compositions to pixilated and choppy movements. The black and white cinematography helps hold it all together. Sound quality is good (except when Genaro plays his guitar out of tune with the violin).

How to Use This DVD

To fully simulate the Landmark Theater experience, watch the Stella Artois commercial first, and then watch the feature. If you liked the movie, read the biographies on the DVD. The short subject French film is completely unrelated and has a very different tone, so save it for another day.