Rebellion has long been a popular theme in film — particularly that which arises out of the struggle between the working classes and the elites. Unfortunately, the specific details of these stories often lead one straight to controversy. Take, for example, the recently acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth: Guillermo del Toro’s fairytale is overwhelmed by the struggle between the "evil Catholic Franco-lovers" and the "heroic, noble Communist rebels." For those less inclined to side with the Communists than del Toro seems to be, it can be an impediment to appreciating his film’s meaning.
This problem of having a message lost in historical details is precisely what Mexican director Francisco Vargas tries to avoid in his debut feature, El Violin (The Violin). Recently released on DVD by Film Movement, and winner of more international awards than any Mexican film in history, El Violin sets out to eliminate particular time periods, nationalities, and political parties. When speaking of the script, Vargas recounts how he
worked on it in such a way that all references to any Mexican socio-political event were erased . . . . [I]t could be Colombian, Bolivian, Guatemalan, or from any of our Latin American countries that have suffered the same experience of confrontation between a civil society and its government, and of armed uprisings, since memory serves us.
Naturally, no film can completely succeed in eliminating all reference to a specific time and place, and this particular film will probably remind more knowledgeable history buffs of any number of rebellions in Mexico during the 1960s and 1970s. But there is a feeling of detachment here; a lack of specificity that makes it possible for the audience to scrutinize the film’s characters without feeling that they are endorsing or rejecting any particular political position. The wonderfully stark black-and-white photography, the nondescript uniforms and clothing, and the lack of any historically significant names all contribute to this detachment.
The story revolves around the elderly, one-handed violinist Don Plutarco, his son, Genaro, and his grandson, Lucio. Poor local farmers, they spend most of their time working their small plot of land and supplement their income by singing and playing music at the local tavern. But there is more to their talents than meets the eye; their performances are a risky (but effective) cover for their attempts to run guns for the local rebels.
As the film opens, the government’s army descends on their poor farming village, captures all the men, and sends the women and children fleeing into hiding. The guns, so painstakingly gathered by Genaro and his compatriots, are left behind, hidden in Don Plutarco’s field.
Don Plutarco, recognizing that his presence is less suspicious than that of his son, returns to the village to determine whether the guns have avoided discovery and, if so, to move them from the safety of his field into the waiting hands of the rebels. On his first visit, accompanied by his trusty violin, he is accosted by the captain of the occupying forces and interrogated.
After discovering that Plutarco is a musician, the captain reveals that he, too, is a great lover of music, and releases the old don. However, he refuses to return the violin; if Don Plutarco wants to play, he says, let him come back the next day, when the captain will have the time and inclination to enjoy another performance. Don Plutarco, who has hit upon the brilliant scheme of concealing the contraband weapons in his violin case, has no choice but to return. An excruciating game of cat-and-mouse ensues, as the old man tries to keep up the appearances of friendship with his enemy, all the while slipping by with the hoarded weapons — one violin case at a time.
While clearly portraying the devastating effects of violence and oppression on those who oppose the lawless military, Vargas’s story carefully avoids the claim that such resistance is either right or wrong, misguided or heroic. And although the film meanders a bit in the first third, the moment the dueling roles of Don Plutarco and the captain come into focus, Vargas’s storytelling becomes much more assured.
A great deal of the credit for this transition must be given to Ángel Tavira, the octogenarian who plays Don Plutarco. Unbelievably, Tavira had never acted before, and his performance here, which won him the Best Actor award at Cannes, was the only film role he ever played. (A talented violinist who lost his hand at 13, yet still went on to live a fruitful life as a teacher and performer, he passed away last June.)
A word of warning: The film’s opening sequence, where military interrogators violently assault a group of female prisoners in an effort to make their fellow rebels talk, is hard to stomach, and far more graphic than the remainder of the film. From the story’s very beginning, Vargas is trying to impress upon the audience the level of brutality and violence that has caused these simple farming folk to rebel, and this is undeniably an effective (if disturbing) way of doing so.
Interestingly, Vargas never again allows himself to dwell on the brutality underlying the film’s message of resistance in the face of unjust oppression, scrupulously avoiding nearly every opportunity for violence the story presents him. The penultimate scene in the film, in particular, would seem to call out for a resolution consistent in tone with the opening sequence, but Vargas refuses to take that route, choosing instead a more ambiguous (and finally, more thought-provoking) ending.
The audience is clearly meant to sympathize with the rebels and to respond sympathetically to those working-class patriots that spend their lives battling brutal military officers and corrupt government policies. But Vargas is not satisfied with being quite that obvious. While presenting a story that clearly underscores the value (and perhaps even inevitable nature) of armed resistance, he juxtaposes it with the debilitating emotional consequences of that same resistance. The haunting final scene brings both sides together in a single moment that is simultaneously disconcerting and hopeful — one last complex message in a film filled with many complex, conflicting messages.
Joseph Susanka writes from Lander, Wyoming.