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June 19, 2007

The Violin, 2005

violin.gifFrancisco Vargas's admirable first feature film, The Violin deceptively starts on a seemingly tangential, wrong note by opening to an underlit, vérité-styled shot of what has become an all too familiar (and arguably gratuitous) image of military atrocities in the face of guerrilla warfare - the arbitrary round-up and brutalization of civilians in an attempt to extract information, the torture of prisoners, the raping of women. But the obscured, bleak, rough hewn images then subsequently - and unexpectedly - give way to the sunlit, distilled beauty of the rural landscape as an elderly farmer and street musician, Don Plutarco (Ángel Tavira), his son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) and grandson Lucio (Mario Garibaldi) prepare for their trip to town, hitchhiking for rides in the backs of passing trucks, before making their way to the town square, stopping in the doorways of cafeterias and along main streets to play music and solicit charity. An encounter between Genaro and a cheese peddler at lunch time, and subsequently, between Genaro and an attractive, young hitchhiker, reinforces the atmosphere of implicit secrecy and covert resistance that pervades the film (a bracing reality that is established in the film's confrontational opening sequence) - the exchange of objects and information performed tacitly through casual gestures and passing glances. Returning home to the sight of women, children, and the elderly in flight after the military descended on the village in order to root out insurgents, Genaro attempts to gain access to the occupied village in order to retrieve a supply of ammunition that has been stashed away within their property to no avail, chased away by soldiers who spot his surveillance. But Don Plutarco has another idea for gaining access into the farm. Trading a year's worth of crops for a burro and carrying only his violin, Don Plutarco ingratiates himself into the company of the stern, yet genial captain (Dagoberto Gama) by playing his violin. However, as the insurgency rages on, can the idealistic notion of music as a uniting medium truly coexist with the cruelty of war? Shot in stark, elegantly composed black and white images, The Violin tonally evokes Henri-Georges Cluozot's The Wages of Fear in its creation of tension through the performance of the mundane. In hindsight, it is this atmosphere of disarming nothingness that ultimately reconciles the film's oddly incongruous opening sequence - a sobering reminder that the capacity for inhumanity and instinctual survival resides in everyone: silent, ever-present, unabated, and inextinguishable.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 19, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch


I was upset that I missed this at TIFF last year, but I was excited to see that Film Movement has it on their schedule; thanks for the write-up, and I'm glad you liked the film. The Wages of Fear seems like a surprising comparison point, which only makes me more eager to see it!

Posted by: Doug on Jul 09, 2007 1:19 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Doug. I saw the Film Movement announcement too, and was pleasantly surprised to see it. They've really been getting some amazing exclusives lately, like Something Like Happiness and Who's Camus Anyway?, not to mention The Bothersome Man and Madeinusa. Anyway, this one seemingly starts off wrong, but it actually makes sense by the end of the film. There's definitely a tense, slow brewing vibe about it which made me think of Cluozot, and the cinematography is as equally spare and striking.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 09, 2007 2:42 PM | Permalink

Acquarello, you mollify my guilt about not writing this film up from the San Francisco International, where I much enjoyed it. For me it resides squarely in the Mexican school of cinema, replete with Figueroa skies, and that dance between countenance and cactii mastered by Miguel Alvarez Bravo, the aforementioned Figueroa, Graciela Iturbide, among others. The nobility of resistance is squarely bracketed by its frequent collapse, which is not the same as failure.

Posted by: Maya on Aug 04, 2007 12:26 AM | Permalink

Thanks for the insight on Mexican cinema aesthetics, Maya. It was really quite eye opening to see the peasant revolts portrayed on film from an indigenous point of view, I can't imagine that too many films have tried to tell their story, even in Mexico. It sure is a far cry from Elia Kazan's ¡Viva Zapata!

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 04, 2007 8:34 PM | Permalink

Indigenismo is an aesthetic practiced by painters, writers, filmmakers, to reflect upon and criticize existing class structures within Mexico. By first extolling the virtues of the indigenous to comment upon their systemized elimination, painters like Kahlo and Covarrubias sought to restore dignity to a people who had been both exoticized and ostracized. Actual depictions of indigenous resistance are rare and few between, perhaps more because that resistence is registered in a kind of stoic perseverance which oftentimes isn't the most dramatic of vehicles. Presenting survival in the face of generations of dismissal is a challenge for an artist wishing to creatively express same. Gregory Nava's El Norte, of course, approached the subject by demonstrating that when resistance proves ineffective, the dream of a new life elsewhere proves to be an equally hazardous proposition.

Posted by: Maya on Aug 14, 2007 7:48 PM | Permalink

Fascinating primer, thanks, Maya! Human Rights Watch had a couple of interesting documentaries about 2-3 years ago that broached on the treatment of indigenous people in South America. One was in Chile where families scavenged the trash dumps for a living, and another was the way red armies exploited the tribes in Peru in an attempt to encircle Lima in preparation for a communist revolution (that never came to pass). The latter film was actually a broader piece on terrorism and how Fujimori came to (and held onto) power, and part of that was the systematic persecution of the indigenous people who were denounced as "aiding" these rebels. It was eye opening stuff.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 15, 2007 11:22 AM | Permalink

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