El Violín… how far from facts?

I just watched and was touched by Francisco Vargas´El Violín (2005). Written by Vargas, the story might be the 18th short text in El Llano en Llamas ; a piece that emerges every minute as a faithful picture of a recurrent and tacitly recognized but still forbidden fight against poverty and exclusion. Don Angel Tavira, a non-professional actor and violinist, who was 81-year-old when the movie was shot, won the Best Actor Award (Un Certain Regard) in Cannes 2006. He passed away in 2008. The movie has won more than 20 awards internationally, more than any Mexican movie.

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Peter Bradshaw wrote a crisp review of this very recommendable movie (taken from The Guardian):

From Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot to Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, the juxtaposition of weapon and musical instrument, the gun in the music case, has been potent. The musical instrument is the polar opposite of the weapon – a force for good, surely? – and yet also more dangerous, more destructive: the means of subversion, of mobilising rebellion.

First-time feature director Francisco Vargas produces a variant on this traditional theme in his bleak drama, shot in a soupy monochrome and set among the guerrilla revolts in Mexico in the 1970s. Although the film takes its time coming to the dramatic point, it exerts a powerful grip, and this is largely due to the remarkable performance of its 83-year-old star, Don Angel Tavira, a non-professional actor and musician with natural charisma and presence.

Vargas first filmed Tavira while making his 2004 documentary Tierra Caliente … Se Mueren los Que la Mueven (Tierra Caliente: The Best Are Dying Off), about Tavira’s own efforts to preserve the traditional music of his forefathers. He brings him back here in fictionalised form in this feature-length expansion of an original short.

Tavira plays Plutarco, an ageing patriarch of natural self-possession and dignity, who farms a tiny plot of land and earns a few coins as a street musician with his violin, despite the fact that he has no right hand, and must laboriously tie the bow to his wrist-stump. His son, a guitarist, is an activist in the peasant guerrilla uprising. The film begins with a scene of pure horror: thuggish soldiers have ransacked their village, torturing its suspected guerrillas and raping its women. Some villagers have managed to flee, including Plutarco, his son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) and grandson Lucio (Mario Garibaldi); they arrive at a rebels’ redoubt in the mountains. But all their ammunition has been left behind in the village, buried under Tavira’s crop, and there seems to be no way of recovering it.

With the courage of someone facing death anyway, Plutarco arrives at the army checkpoint, humbly asking to be allowed to reap what remains of his harvest. The brutish Captain (Dagoberto Gama) is on the verge simply of shooting this tiresome old man, but instead demands that Plutarco play the violin that he carries around with him, and on a tyrant’s whim, decides that he is charmed by the music and demands that Plutarco play for him every day. He even confides that he has always wanted to learn the violin himself: would Plutarco teach him? So, just as Plutarco hatches his plan to smuggle the ammo out in his violin case, he realises that he will need the instrument to placate the capricious captain, and even finds himself establishing an unlikely and unwanted bond with him.

It is a very good story, and it grows on you. There are moments of high drama and tension as Plutarco, having finally gained the soldiers’ confidence, hides his violin in the ammo dump and attempts casually to leave the encampment with his violin case packed with bullets. Will the guards choose this moment to stop and search him? Another sort of movie would find a feelgood way of resolving the story; Vargas’s vision is more grim and more realistic, but it is persuasively real, and in Tavira the director has found a natural star of the screen.


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