The Red Violin
directed by Francois Girard
(Lions Gate, 1998)

Picking through a shipment of instruments the Chinese government hopes to auction in the West, expert Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) thinks he may have the find of a lifetime: The Red Violin, a storied instrument of such mythic beauty and power that what it produces goes beyond music and has the force of life itself.

It will be sought by everyone. It is priceless. But what is the source of the instrument's potency? Who has held it, played it, treasured it, in the centuries since it was made in Cremona, Italy? And how did its maker, Nicolo Bussotti, imbue the violin with its soul?

Filmmaker Francois Girard and screenwriters Girard and Don McKellar unveil the answers slowly in The Red Violin, flashing in measured time from the present-day auction in Montreal, where bidders put their emotions on the line, back to Cremona and the instrument's birth, through Vienna and Oxford and Shanghai. In each new location the instrument's force makes it a treasure in the hands of its owner, from a poor Austrian orphan to a brilliant, troubled English violinist to a musician caught in the Cultural Revolution of China.

But it all begins with Bussotti, whose wife, Anna, dies in childbirth before the violin is finished. Her servant Cesca, shortly before Anna dies, performs a tarot reading for her -- a reading revealed only as the film proceeds.

Girard has not created a linear story -- instead, The Red Violin is structured like a musical theme and variation. First, Montreal and Cremona. Then to the violin's next stop, back to Montreal to see the auction from a new vantage point, with new nuance. Then to Cremona, where more of its story is revealed. Then to Oxford, and back to Montreal ... each time, a new piece of the puzzle is revealed.

It is a symphony of a movie, with each character playing the part he or she must play, each adding a suggestion of the final meaning, adding in Italian, or German or Chinese or French a bit more of its history and its tragedy. It's much like Girard's 1993 film, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which bounced back and forth to illuminate different facets of the Canadian pianist.

It's also a soundtrack any composer would love to tackle. Here, John Corigliano is given the task of writing music for a violin that is otherworldly in beauty. Consultant Joshua Bell performs the solos.

From 17th-century Italy, through an 18th-century Austrian monastery, 19th-century England and a 20th-century revolution, the violin grows undiminished in mystique. One of the characters will own the instrument as the movie fades to black ... but it's just another chapter in the journey of the violin.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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