“The Third World is not a reality but an ideology.” --Hannah Arendt
It's hard to look at The Violin (2005, directed by Francisco Vargas) and not see politics, but like the Italian neo-realists before them, its makers couch its political philosophy in the faces of the downtrodden and in a common humanity. It's a tough balancing act: too much politics and it becomes a polemic. Too much humanity and it loses its tooth as a rage against the machine. The Violin isn't entirely successful in navigating that razor's edge, but it navigates it well enough.
The story here follows a family of musicians in a time of guerrilla war. The country is never named, but we are taken to understand that the film is set during Mexico's peasant uprising of the 1970s in the state of Guerrero. The central character is Don Plutarco Hidalgo, a man who cannot work his land due to the ongoing conflict. He and his family--a son and a grandson--make music to get by. Don Plutarco is a violinist, in spite of missing his right hand. He straps a bow to the stump and goes to town. His son is up to shadier things, helping out the guerrillas against the repressive government forces while searching for his wife. Don Plutarco, for his part, is a passive combatant, and during the course of the movie, he's our guide through the complaints of the oppressed people. He trades a year of his crops to a wealthy landowner in exchange for a mule. The landowner hands him a blank sheet to sign; he'll fill in the details later. He then visits with the commander of the local government forces, who has a yen for music. He insists on keeping Don Plutarco's violin. If Don Plutarco wants to play, he has to return and play for the commander. Indeed, the commander wants to learn to play himself. During their conversations, the commander tells Don Plutarco that, if it were up to him, the soldiers would be gone already. He seems a reasonable man. The end of the movie, however, demonstrates Hannah Arendt's awful banality of evil: it's usually reasonable men who commit at atrocities. Don Plutarco's last line is bitter and haunting: "The music is over."
This is all filmed in a stately black and white that recalls the depression-era photographs of Walker Evans and Margaret Bourk-White. Director Francisco Vargas, directing his first movie, lingers on the face of Ángel Tavira, the first-time actor who plays Don Plutarco. It's the kind of seamed peasant face that seems to have a kind of eternal grace to it. It's the kind of face that seems carved specifically for black and white photography. The film has deliberate echoes of other leftist art, too, particularly John Steinbeck. There's a scene in which Don Plutarco explains the origin of war to his grandson in an elegant, mythic argument for socialism while the camera slowly moves over the smoldering coals of their fire that recall's Tom Joad's "I'll be there" soliloquy in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. It's a beautiful scene.
The film missteps at its outset. The opening scene features a faceless guerrilla being tortured by the soldiers, followed by a snippet of one of the female guerillas being raped. These scenes prejudice the viewer from the outset and makes one rather more suspicious of Comandante Cayetano (Silverio Palacios) than is good for the movie. It's important that the viewer see Cayetano's basic humanity for the film's final effect to strike home, and by opening the film the way he does, Vargas almost bungles the whole thing. Fortunately, the bulk of the film recovers from this enough to put some distance between the end and the beginning, but this is a flaw too, given that the point of the film is to elide the bad things that are going to happen to our protagonists once the game is over, and by placing the opening in the viewer's memory, it is intended to send a chill through the viewer as the movie plays the audience out to the exit. So as a narrative structure, this has deep, possibly irreconcilable problems. Still, the rest of the film is of such beauty that it mostly overcomes the awkwardness of its design.