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Bloody but Bowed

[whitespace] The Red Violin
Bohemian Rhapsody: A bedeviled instrument falls into the hands of Victorian bohos Jason Flemyng and Greta Scacchi in 'The Red Violin.'

'The Red Violin' follows a devilish instrument across four centuries

By Richard von Busack

LUCIFER IS OFTEN portrayed playing a violin. Perhaps the instrument he's fiddling with is the title subject of François Girard's epic film. The Red Violin is The Maltese Falcon with strings, a second cousin to The Monkey's Paw. Created by an Italian master, finished with some peculiar form of red paint, the violin survives the hands of its many players. The story begins in 1998, when the cursed violin tantalizes the one man who recognizes its value, Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), an expert on antique violins. In flashback, the instrument's tangled story is retold. The trail commences in Italy at the workshop of the violin maker, Buscoti (Carlo Cecchi), and his pregnant wife (Irene Grazioli). In 1800--a couple of centuries after both master and wife were struck by tragedy--the instrument comes to rest in the arms of a child prodigy, who is trained unceasingly by a composer named Poussin.

Seventy years later, the violin belongs to Pope (Jason Flemyng), a decadent Englishman. Pope's paramour is a fancy Gothic novelist (Greta Scacchi). In this section, we get some droll, clever sketching of Pre-Raphaelite Bohemia--which, pleasantly, Girard favors. The fourth episode is the most serious: via Shanghai, the violin arrives in China. During the 1960s, it's in the possession of a woman who is denounced by the government for playing Western music. Finally, we return to the present, where appraiser Morritz is nervously scheming and sweating bullets.

The Red Violin doesn't have one solid mood--the mood flows around the episodes, changing weight and music with each tale. Nor does the film have a particular moral. Lavish as the production is, it doesn't stop to gawk at the antiques. The film's score gives the movie velocity. The first thing we hear in China of the mid-'60s, even before the picture clears, is the unholy sound of an accordion orchestra. Earlier, Pope's breathless, mad music tells us quicker than exposition what a rogue he is. The child prodigy's practice piece accelerates to the time of a "Poussinmeter"--a metronome--and the crazy violin music recalls Bernard Herrmann's diabolical four-part version of "Pop Goes the Weasel," as performed by a fiddling Satan in The Devil and Daniel Webster. The slow tunes in The Red Violin are like the whole sad history of the violin made audible. And yet even after the comical tragedy and tragical comedy, the movie skips away from dire tragedy at the finish. In skirting the inevitable, The Red Violin seems lighthearted instead of light-witted. Maybe there is a moral here: even the devil can do favors sometimes.

The Red Violin (130 min.), directed by François Girard, written by Don McKellar and Girard, photographed by Alain Dostie and starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Flemyng and Greta Scacchi, opens Friday at the Guild in Menlo Park and Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the June 17-23, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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