Shortly before leaving town for the Toronto film festival, I had the pleasure of taking in a preview of Francisco Vargas’ debut feature, The Violin (2006), at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Latin American Cinema Weekend. I was impressed by the series’ line-up (Alea, BuÒuel, Ripstein, etc.), but what I didn’t realize until I arrived was that the series was offered free in conjunction with the museum’s new exhibition on Latin American art–and the film’s line snaked its way through the museum grounds around so many buildings, corners, and walkways I thought I’d never get in the door.
Fortunately, I did. The Violin not only tells an ageless story of the clash between militia and peasants, it’s a clash of tones in itself, mixing violence and social realism with lyrical black-and-white landscapes and observant character studies (played by a combination of professional and non-professional actors), and it does it with striking fluidity. The film’s dramatic premise (an aged violin player attempts to sneak back to his occupied village by entertaining the military commander) and masterful sense of pacing make it riveting, while its thematic tensions of appeasement, manipulation, and resistance in the face of oppression build to a penetrating finale. The film is set for a rare US theatrical release by Film Movement in December, with a DVD to follow.
Aside from its arresting cinematography (reminiscent of the work of Gabriel Figueroa), the film’s major draw is Don Angel Tavira’s lead performance as the one-handed and eccentric violinist. Offscreen, Tavira is a Guerreroan musical scholar and musician who served as the subject of director Vargas’ previous documentary, and here he proves himself to be a natural character actor with his unforced, laconic line delivery and endlessly fascinating, craggy face. (He deservedly won the Best Actor prize for Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section.) Tavira’s performance is aided by Vargas’ colorful and colloquial dialogue that makes the most of understatement and idiomatic expressions; a whimsical tale the violinist tells his grandson about the creation of the world generated considerable chuckles from the largely Spanish-speaking audience at my screening. But far from a Coen-like self-conscious artificiality, Plutarco’s speech is leavened with a directness and sincerity that serves as a loving tribute to Mexican oral culture.
The severity of the film’s opening scenes–which offer a harrowing depiction of interrogation, torture, and rape (though somewhat elliptically presented)–suggests a much more graphic and terrorizing film than it proves to be. However, the scenes not only serve to establish the very real dangers the peasants and guerillas face, but also contribute to an unpredictable tone that increases the narrative suspense; in a film where anything can happen, the sense of looming, imminent danger is much more palpable.
Through an assortment of smaller scenes, Vargas also remains alert to social themes throughout the picture; at first an extended bar scene seems out-of-place in a drama that predominantly takes place in outlying areas, but Vargas returns to village life by the film’s end, re-emphasizing the economic struggle that perpetuates the guerilla rebellion. Similarly, a brief scene depicting the violinist and his purely verbal, illiterate negotiations in purchasing a donkey highlight the systemic injustice facing farmers who have little to bargain with and less to ensure its legal legitimacy.
A film that is by turns shocking, observant, picturesque, and thought-provoking, The Violin is a moving expression of the tumultuous existence of countless Mexican lives. And surprisingly, its quiet drama–the tense interactions between the talented but scheming violinist and the envious but powerful commander–is what ultimately arises as its most essential, lingering conflict, and pivots around questions of tradition, performance, goodness, and mutual respect that remain central to both larger aesthetic and political ideals.