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Weekly Alibi The Red Violin

Symphony of Life

By Devin D. O'Leary

JUNE 28, 1999:  I don't pretend to know much about classical music. I don't even pretend to like the stuff very much. Call me a vulgarian if you want -- I won't defend myself. But I do at least understand the passion behind classical music. No other musical form has the ability to stir the emotions in such an epic way. Think of the movies that rock and roll has inspired: Jailhouse Rock? La Bamba? Heavy Metal? Footloose? Entertaining flicks, perhaps, but can any of them compare to the tempestuous passions of Amadeus? Hardly. Classical music is all about passions (love, lust, anger, bliss, whatever) so powerful that they threaten to consume both composer and listener.

Canadian filmmaker François Girard's newest film, The Red Violin, captures this idea in an epic, ensemble-cast setting. The result is a stunning work of art saturated in passion -- both in front of and behind the camera. Viewers will have a hard time shaking this film from their systems, and Academy Award voters would do well to pencil this one in as a front-runner for next year's ceremonies.

Girard is best known for his experimental, kaleidoscopic portrait of world-renowned pianist Glenn Gould, entitled 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. For The Red Violin, Girard has re-teamed with screenwriter Don McKellar (Girard's co-scribe on 32 Films) to produce another mythic rumination on the world of music. This time, instead of concentrating on the biography of a musician, the filmmakers have decided to concentrate on the biography of a musical instrument.

The instrument in question is a 17th-century violin created by fictional Italian master violin-maker Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi). The violin is lovingly fashioned as the ultimate work of Bussotti's craft and is intended as a legacy for his unborn son. When Bussotti's beloved wife Anna dies in childbirth, though, the instrument becomes the embodiment of Bussotti's grief. From this tragic beginning, the violin embarks on a massive journey through three centuries of world history. This magical "perfect" instrument becomes the pivot around which many stories revolve. From Italy to Austria to England to China and, ultimately, to Canada, the violin becomes the emotional, spiritual and intellectual centerpiece of the lives of its various owners.

In 18th-century Austria the violin falls into the hands of an orphaned musical prodigy adopted by a desperate maestro who learns, too late, the true meaning of love. In 19th-century England, flamboyant musician Frederick Pope comes under the violin's passionate thrall -- much to the eventual jealousy of his mistress, an equally passionate novelist. In 20th-century China, the violin finds itself under the protection of a young, music-loving woman in the midst of China's Cultural Revolution. Each of these stories represents a different theme, but is still tied to the film's central leitmotif of passion. That most of these stories end in tragedy should come as no surprise. Great passion and great tragedy seem to go hand in hand -- a lesson amply demonstrated by the violin's grim birthright.

Girard's collection of interrelated short stories is bracketed by an auction in modern-day Toronto, where musical expert Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to puzzle out the true story of this special violin's past before it goes onto the block. Current Jedi Master Jackson may seem like an odd choice for such a low-key role, but the typically ass-kicking actor goes for the slow-burn here and more than proves his acting mettle with some stunningly understated thesping. The look on Jackson's face the moment Morritz realizes what this instrument really is -- and that it is soon to slip out of his hands -- perfectly encapsulates the passions this film embodies.

The Red Violin owes much to such previous omnibus-style films such as Tales of Manhattan (following a man's tailcoat through several owners), The Yellow Rolls Royce (following the title car through several owners) and A Letter to Three Wives (following a mysterious letter through the hands of three philandered-upon wives). Still, The Red Violin feels much more cohesive than those previous episodic efforts. Each story is carefully conceived, feels totally self-contained, and yet contributes to the movie as a whole. It really is a remarkable piece of writing and directing and a testament to Girard's skills as a filmmaker.

The lensing of the film -- which spans five countries, four languages and more than 300 years of historical and cultural change -- is stunning. Girard's artistic sensibilities are in rare form here, as he deftly straddles the line between art film and commercial success. The film's complex narrative (with its flashbacks, flashforwards and double framing device) is handled expertly, creating a singular tension throughout, despite the frequent switching of characters and stories. The ending, which comes as an emotional atomic bomb, is an unforgettable melding of tragic past and hopeful future. The only recent film which even seems to compare to it is The English Patient -- a vastly different film which, nonetheless, shared an epic vision, an intelligent structure and a sweeping emotional landscape.

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