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From Mexico, 'The Violin' Tugs Stirringly at the Heartstrings

Don Angel Tavira, left, as a one-handed Central American peasant whose cunning and courage elevate him to revolutionary hero in
Don Angel Tavira, left, as a one-handed Central American peasant whose cunning and courage elevate him to revolutionary hero in "The Violin." (Film Movement)
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 15, 2008

An acting award at Cannes, film festival honors worldwide and bouquets from the likes of Giullermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") have strewn rose petals in the path of "The Violin" -- a picture better imagined dragging its way along a dirt road in some neglected corner of Mexico.

A rebel's-eye view of a peasant revolution, Francisco Vargas's poetic thriller unrolls in crisp black and white, simple gestures and a fatalist's view of political evolution: The opening scene, of soldiers torturing insurrectionist villagers, is without context, but the inference you draw is that it could be happening anytime, anywhere along the scorched road of Central and South American history. Or elsewhere, for that matter -- "The Battle of Algiers" seems an obvious reference, and not a bad comparison.

After the opening sequence concludes, we cut to the aging Plutarco (Don Angel Tavira) and as a result immediately see him in the role of symbolic Mexican peasant and, perhaps, revolutionary icon. We don't know how he lost his right hand, but we've seen the torture going on around him; that he makes his living playing violin by tying the bow to his stump suggests a particularly cruel twist of fate, or more likely the unspeakable brutality of his fellow man. With his son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) and grandson, Lucio (Mario Garibaldi), he travels the roads playing music, Lucio collecting money and Genaro passing notes and amassing arms for the guerrilla army training in the forests of this unspecified rural region.

When soldiers raid their village, seizing Genaro's wife, among others, the rest of the villagers flee. Left behind is a cache of ammunition that is small, but desperately needed. While the various rebel battalions decide how to launch an offensive against the government's troops, Plutarco executes an old man's stratagem, one based on cunning, patience and music.

"The Violin" is obviously not your typical political suspense film -- it revels in the rural glories of Mexico, the crags in the landscape and in Plutarco's weathered face. There is the implied irony -- one common to any film that actually notices the nature surrounding a story -- that man's inhumanity is not just stupid but insignificant. When all that populates these mountains is dead, "The Violin" says, the wind will still be breathing through the trees.

So it's not coincidental that what separates man from his fellow woodland creatures -- art -- is the device by which Plutarco wheedles his way into the confidence of the Captain (Dagoberto Gama). The unctuous officer bars Plutarco's way back to his village (and his bullets), but he is also a frustrated musician, one pathetically without talent but whom Plutarco can wrap around his finger. While the captain's men roll their eyes and move out of earshot when their commander picks up the violin, Plutarco grits his teeth and eventually gets what he wants. At least for a time.

A beautiful film, and a heartbreaker, "The Violin" transcends its politics -- which are so generically south-of-the-border that the film becomes far more of a parable than a manifesto. And you can't have a parable without a lesson learned, and hope regained: Without giving too much away, the closing shot is straight out of Chaplin's "Modern Times" -- another film that took a dour view of the human condition, while embracing the elusive possibility that it all might someday change.

The Violin (98 minutes, in Spanish with English subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but contains violence and vulgarity.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company