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In an unnamed Latin American country that closely resembles Mexico, the government fights a rural insurgency with torture, assault, rape, and murder. Soldiers descend on a town, cutting off the rebels from their cache of ammunition hidden in a field. A family of grandfather, son, and grandson are among the rebels in the hills. The grandfather, with his violin over his shoulder, tries to pass the checkpoint, ostensibly to tend his corn crop. The commanding officer lets him pass but insists on a daily music lesson. Can the old man ferry out the ammunition in his violin case under the soldiers' nose? Written by
Riveting debut performance by an elderly actor and impressive photography
Imagine that you look like a grandfather in real life. Imagine that your right palm has been amputated but you play a violin with a bow strapped to the maimed arm. Imagine a director wanting to use you as a lead actor in a feature film. Imagine you win a Cannes Film Festival Best Actor prize for the "Un Certain Regard" section of the festival for the role. It's not a dream--it happened to Mexican actor Don Angel Tavira in the Mexican film "El Violin" or the Violin, directed by Francisco Vargas.
I caught up with this film at the on-going International Film Festival of Kerala, India, where it won the Silver Crow Pheasant, an award for the best competition entry chosen by the delegates (in contrast to the jury). The award was bestowed on the basis of votes from 6200 delegates attending the festival.
I do not know how Tavira lost his palm but I learned that the director made the film keeping the future actor in mind. Tavira looks like Charles Vanel in his later years. He exudes a sincerity that touches the viewer and is not easily forgettable. He mixes sincerity with the wizened touch of an old fox.
The film is similar to Irish filmmaker Ken Loach's "The wind that shakes the barley" in many ways. Only "The violin" is shot in black and white while Ken Loach shot his film in lush color. The photography is in no way amateurish. Both films are about the poor fighting mighty oppressors--in the case of "El Violin" poor villagers fighting a cruel Mexican army.
Finer points of the film include a marvelous dialog between grandfather and grandson that speaks highly of the director screenplay writer's Vargas' writing capability. Yet he has only made four films.
As one might have guessed the violin case and violin player are key to the development of the film. Music is a great leveler--the brutes and the aesthetes both appreciate good music.
Vargas choice to film in black and white is commendable. The violence and rape that launches the film is not extended into the film as other directors would have been tempted to do. Interestingly the strength of the film is that it does not show violence at later stages--something that Ken Loach could not restrain himself from. Violence for Vargas is not gratuitous--it is to provide the focal point. The rest of the violence is only for the viewer to imagine. Now that's good cinema.
This time Vargas had a great actor. Can he make equally good films without such innate talent of Don Tavira? My guess is that he can repeat this feat with others too. Vargas has an eye for talent, for good photography and a flair for good scriptwriting.
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