Angels with dirty faces

Folksy lyricism makes Francisco Vargas's The Violin a quiet beauty

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The Bay Area boasts some of the most forward-thinking film programmers in the country, but even here there's often no getting around the circuitous, arbitrary workings of foreign film distribution. No matter how big a hit in its festival travels, the foreign film must dutifully wait untold months until it is dressed up by Sony Pictures Classics or released to no fanfare by a small distributor like Film Movement. That particular company is backing the belated American opening of Francisco Vargas's The Violin, a plainly appealing sleeper that picked up major festival awards from Cannes to San Francisco as well as major props from star director Guillermo del Toro (quoted as saying, "In The Violin lies the future of Mexican cinema").

I mention all of this here only to emphasize that it's something of a coincidence that The Violin is opening in the shadow of several American movies obsessed with death in the open West, a landscape in which violence congeals as fast as the pop of an air gun or the rush of an oil geyser. A coincidence perhaps, but a bracing one for the way it compounds the eerie calm of Vargas's debut feature, which, completely contrary to the excellent No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood (let alone Redacted), works to profess the fullness of the soul locked in dubious battle.

As with many overtly lyrical westerns, The Violin's coordinates — mountains and village, the bar and the barracks, guerrillas and soldiers — aren't specific. Whichever war is being fought, it has already spiraled into abstraction; the opening credits roll over a ravishingly composed torture sequence in which military men maim peasants for no reason other than their being indistinguishable from the guerrillas. The sequence establishes the tone through its look, with soft black-and-white cinematography suffusing the villagers' tragedy with an ennobling grace reminiscent of Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men portraiture.

This prologue is unnerving for being a composition before it is an action — even as that action is so despairingly brutal. As Vargas slips into the main of The Violin, though, this predilection for romantic chiaroscuro inscribes his fable with the dangerous delicacy of a daydream. The plot, such as it is, gets under way when an old man and his adult son go busking with their violin and guitar, the youngest member of this patrilineal trio, Lucio, collecting the change. Later the adult son, Genaro, slips into the back room of a bar (another space painted in shadow and smoke) to procure weapons for his village's guerrillas. It's to no avail, since by the time he returns to the town with his child and his violinist father, the magisterial Don Plutarco (the Cannes-awarded Ángel Tavira), the Army has already done its cruel work, taking over the village and its hidden cache. Flashing modesty and feigned foolishness as another person might their teeth, Plutarco wins the favor of the presiding captain, serenading with his creaky violin ballads while surreptitiously smuggling out supplies with every adios.

Instead of drumming up dramatic impact with the story's inherently suspenseful elements, Vargas's film floats by with its head in the clouds, tragedies and trivialities enfolded in caressing close-ups and violin whistles. This dreamlike ambiance paradoxically seems to dovetail with Vargas's laudable neorealist technique, especially in his work with a nonprofessional cast and his easy command of direct sound. So many films overplay their hand here; drunk on Terrence Malick movies, the nature score is often magnified to absurd sharpness, crickets chirping in your ear, blades of grass aflame in song. Vargas's sound is comparatively obscure, but besides being pleasurably spacious, it's true to his vision of a humble poetry of the everyday.

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