The Reeler


December 4, 2007

The Violin

Vargas drops a worthy calling card with a low-key study of Mexico's political underground

With his plainly written, black-and-white debut feature The Violin, Mexican director Francisco Vargas has composed an effective, low-key study of underground political opposition. But it's hardly a masterpiece; The pronouncement of Guillermo del Toro, the leading soldier of last year's “Three Amigos” revolution, that The Violin is "one of the most amazing Mexican films in many a year" says more about his allegiance to cinema from certain parts of the world than it does about the merits of the actual work. (What might del Toro think about Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light, truly one of the most amazing films in many a year -- which just happens to be from Mexico?)

That said, The Violin has a chillingly effective atmosphere focused on surreal, barren terrain. Three generations of the Plutarco family, a trio of men bound together in strife, hide out in the Mexican countryside of the early 1970s while an oppressive regime rules their land. On the surface, the family makes an honest living as musicians, but the Plutarcos secretly operate as a trenchant guerilla strike team scheming to take down their dictatorial government. Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) is the belligerent member of the bunch, always seemingly poised to attack. His young, prepubescent son Mario (Lucio Garibaldi) looks on and follows orders with quiet observance. Don (Don Angel Tavira), Mario's grandfather, is the wise elder of the family, and also the movie's real star. A maiming that takes place off-screen has left him with one hand, but he still plays a mean violin with the bow tied to his bandaged stump.

Hardened by age, soft-spoken and occasionally amicable, Don comes up with the story's central ruse, intent on permeating the family's occupied land to retrieve hidden ammunitions. Rather than sneaking into the area (he's not exactly the rigorous physical sort), Don walks right into the farm, where armed forces arrest him. Soon, a plan comes together, as Don entrances a militant leader with his fiddling skill. The soldier takes a liking to the plainspoken visitor and his lovely musical finesse, allowing him to come and go while keeping his instrument to ensure that he'll always return. And so an intricate cat-and-mouse game begins, as Don continually attempts to get closer to the weapons stash and the leader attempts to figure out what he's trying to hide.

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Despite the intrigue described above, The Violin is too contemplative to be considered a thriller. The plot progresses with simplistic inevitability; Vargas establishes a hefty situation with major stakes, but the scenes of Don enacting his clandestine operation remain minimalist and focused. The movie puts forth such simple character motivation that it could function as an extended music video for the folk song synopsizing the events heard at the end of the movie. Nevertheless, the climax has fist-clenching efficaciousness worthy of the finest suspense films.

Perfectly fine as a calling card, The Violin played at Cannes and benefits greatly from the aforementioned name-brand support. It's not a monumental achievement, but Vargas has unequivocal directorial vision worthy of additional work. The movie itself, which is loosely based on Carlos Priesto's The Adventures of Cello, only shines in individual moments. Its greatest asset is Tavira, whose wizened face (which spends a lot of time up close with the story's villain) often says much about the universal quandary of deception in the name of freedom. When Don chooses to speak, he gets straight to the point, but fairly eloquently. "The music is over," he surmises in the big finish. Which is to say: The fight begins.

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