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The Red Violin

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Red Violin

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Greta Scacchi
Director: Fracois Girard
Rated: NR
RunTime: 128 Minutes
Release Date: June 1999
Genres: Drama, Foreign, Music

*Also starring: Carlo Cecchi, Jean-Luc Bideau, Sylvia Chang, Colm Feore, Jason Flemyng, Irene Grazioli, Christoph Koncz

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

As the most abstract of the arts, music is the only truly universal language. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Vivaldi, and Scarlatti can be understood and appreciated in any culture just as the rock, punk and discotheque music have traveled the globe, devoured by young people wherever governments have allowed it entry. No wonder, then, that a single violin can make its way from Italy to Austria to England to China and then cross the seas to Canada. The sounds which this instrument can produce afford uplift to those who inhabit many cultures. A well-made vehicle for delivering such pleasure is bound to be in demand, particularly if the instrument is an Amati, a Guarneri or a Stradivari.

A stringed instrument is the principal character of this masterful Canadian-Italian production. The red violin is a three-hundred year old piece of the finest craftsmanship, constructed with particular love in 1681 by Nicolo Bussatti (Carlo Cecchi), who dedicated it to his wife, Anna (Irene Grazioli). After Anna had died in childbirth (ironically enough, since her fortune-telling servant assured her a long and fruitful life), her husband secretly drained some of the blood from the limp wrist of the corpse to create a unique rust color for the instrument. He could hardly have forseen the journey this singular instrument would make during the subsequent three centuries. Had the violin been given the breath of life, it would have experienced a dizzying range of incidents and ordeals, shifting ownership and countries with the persistence of a dedicated travel agent determined to grasp the soul of a few of the world's most dramatic locales.

"The Red Violin" beautifully exploits the qualities inherent in the film medium. The picture is exquisitely photographed by Alain Dostie to evoke the 17th Century continental charms of Cremona in northern Italy, the stately pomp of Vienna as it approaches its imperial glory, the Victorian countryside of Oxford, England, the spirited revolutionary bustle of 1960s Shanghai, and the cosmopolitan enticements of modern Montreal. We get a feel for the devotion which a master craftsman has for his product, the sweat that goes into the training of a gifted musician, and the financial rewards which are promised to those who can competently exploit the arduous work of others. As the eponymous red violin makes the rounds across borders and centuries, it is handled and discussed by people of diverse temperaments until it lands in the hands of its current owner by dint of an uncharacteristically tension-filled conclusion.

Following a screenplay penned by Don McKellar and his own hand, director Francois Girard eschews the strictly conventional narrative, peppering the chronicle with frequent flashbacks and focusing particularly on an auction being held at the Duval House in Montreal, where wealthy bidders from various backgrounds have gathered to make offers on a set of costly string instruments. In the flashback style now known by the tens of millions who have seen "The Phantom of the Opera" on stage, director Girard takes us first to a modern-day collection of affluent bidders and, upon the dramatic presentation of the red violin, he transports us to 17th Century Italy, where Anna Bussotti is consulting with her servant-diviner, Cesca (Anita Laurenzi). As Cesca turns over the Tarot cards she slowly reveals the future. With each card's turn, Girard takes us to a new country, another period, as each prediction is played out.

The violin turns up in Austria some one hundred years after its creation, as Georges Poussin (Jean-Luc Bideau) takes his very young prodigy, orphan Kaspar Weiss (Christoph Koncz), under his wing to prepare the six-year-old lad for a concert before the emperor in Vienna. The violin ultimately passes to a band of gypsies who have purloined it, commuted to England, and find a buyer in landowner-musician Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng)--who utilizes it well in an inspired concert--following a brief and impassioned and decidedly un- Victorian tryst he enjoys with his mistress, Victoria (Greta Scacchi). When Pope's servant (Stuart Ong) slinks with it across the seas to his Shanghai home in the 1960s, it is almost destroyed by cadres of the Cultural Revolution, who consider it a symbol of western decadence. Winding up at auction, the Duval house in Montreal commissions expert Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) to certify its authenticity. The violin is then poised for transfer to some lucky tycoon with a couple of million dollars to spend, at which point the handsome instrument can presumably prepare for another three centuries or so of high adventure.

One can understand the film's success in Canada, where the movie industry has been following paths other than those commonly trodden by Hollywood. Since that country's production of motion pictures began with "Evangeline" in 1914, Canada has had to compete with the far greater capital enjoyed by its prosperous neighbor to the south. After decades of timidity and mediocrity, Canada broke through its historic sluggishness in the 1980s and during our own decade, making its mark even in some American circles with the productions of David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan. If any recent motion picture affords evidence that this vast country has the scope, the confidence, the flair for sustaining large-budget yet tasteful work, it would be "The Red Violin." Acted with intelligence, humor, wit and elegance by performers as diverse as Chinese actress Sylvia Chang, the American Samuel L. Jackson, and the absolutely superb English thesp Jason Flemyng, "The Red Violin" joins vastly appealing vistas with a powerful and original soundtrack composed by John Corigliano--which is played with fervor by Joshua Bell and the London Philharmonia Orchestra. So much care is placed on authenticity that cognoscenti will be competent to identify time periods simply by feasting their eyes on Renee April's lush costumes.

Francois Girard is no stranger to the genre, having favored us six years ago with the stirring and innovative "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," told to us like his thoroughly accomplished current work in vignettes. He has built upon this forerunner exquisitely. "The Red Violin" is a wholly realized amalgam of sight, sound, and narrative.

Copyright 1999 Harvey Karten

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