Much appreciated by Mexican cineasts, writer-director Francisco Vargas’s accomplished first feature The Violin is a solemn, suspenseful, extremely well-shot political drama. This evocation of the 1970s Guerrero peasant revolt has an old-time feel that variously suggests a Soviet silent picture, one of B. Traven’s Chiapas stories, and an updated legend from Mexico’s revolutionary past.
Everything in this battle between downtrodden campesinos and the uniformed military thugs who police them is crisply black-and-white and heavily aestheticized. The Violin’s humble subjects are ennobled with chiaroscuro, and their passion is played out in disturbingly beautiful settings. The movie opens on the army torturing captive insurgents in a ramshackle back-country hut that’s lit like a cathedral. The protagonist is a wizened, one-handed musician (octogenarian violinist Don Á Tavira) with a face as weathered as a canyon wall and the weighty, classical moniker Plutarco.
What is his life? The movie flashes back to Plutarco, his son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena, last seen as one of Mel Gibson’s Mayan monsters), and little grandson Lucio as street musicians, playing for pennies in some suitably wretched pueblo as a cover for the fiery Genaro’s revolutionary activities. But while Genaro arranges an arms sale in the local cantina, a sordid dive waiting for its Rembrandt, the Mexican Army raids their mountain village—torching houses, brutalizing suspects, and sending the inhabitants scurrying for safety in the woods. Genaro manages to reach the guerrilla camp, but Plutarco has another plan, signing away his life to the local
padron in exchange for a mule, which he then uses to return to the now-occupied town.
Looking for a way to retrieve the weapons that have been buried out in the cornfields, the stoic old man discovers that the commanding officer (Dagoberto Gama) has a genuine love of music and a pathetic desire to become a musician himself. (Suddenly, it might be World War II, with Nazis and Jews.) Playing on the captain’s yearning as well as his violin, poker-faced Plutarco engages the brute in a prolonged battle of wits that ultimately takes us back to the grim credit sequence. (A postscript nevertheless demonstrates Vargas’s social-realist faith in the future.)
The Violin is burdened with a surplus of distractingly artsy close-ups of Tavira, who won an acting award at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and is here often treated as a sort of human objet d’art. The camera angles draw attention to themselves, and the background music has a tendency to turn disconcertingly highfalutin. Still, The Violin is a movie of undeniable gravitas and monumentality—even if it is too fond of its own effects.