Rebellion comes in different guises. There are those who take to the mountains to fight government forces. There are others who carry out terrorist attacks on city centres. Others choose more peaceful methods, like marching down a main thoroughfare bearing placards that proclaim their political allegiance. But then you have the type of rebel who defies stereotypes, mainly by staging his or her protest in more circumspect and inconspicuous ways.
This last category is the one that fits Don Plutarco, the leading character of 'El Violín', a Mexican film directed by Francisco Vargas. Shot entirely in black and white, this elegant film tells the story of a family caught up in the maelstrom of politics and insurgence. In an unnamed Latin American country - although most people seem to agree that the nation depicted in the film is Mexico and the period sketched out is that of the peasants' revolts in the 70s - the government is trying to contain a rural upheaval. The first scene shows a group of soldiers raping a peasant woman. Only later do we realise that she might be the wife of one of the main characters in the movie. The government forces loot, torture and murder as they wish. The rebels fight back but suddenly find themselves severed from their cache of ammunition. Don Plutarco (superb performance by Ángel Tavira, who I believe did not have much thespian experience before), a reputable, elderly patriarch, comes up with an ingenious way to smuggle the ammo under the soldier's noses: his violin case. He is helped, inadvertently, by the captain of a small platoon based at a checkpoint near Don Plutarco's farm. The officer (played excellently by Dagoberto Gama) asks the old man to play the violin to him. In exchange Don Plutarco is allowed to tend to his corn crop. But his intentions are not of the agricultural kind. Buried in the soil is his desired goal: the bullets for the insurgents.
In 'El Violín' Francisco Vargas builds a cogent narrative bereft of cheap sentimentality or tacky, romantic discourses. Although the soldiers are shown at their worst, the captain displays signs of a sensitive, artistic bent, probably masqueraded by his army life. In a poignant scene where the officer confides in Don Plutarco some of the dreams he had when he was younger he declares that he'd rather be somewhere else. He also confesses to the elderly farmer that he would have loved to learn how to play a musical instrument. On the other hand, Don Plutarco is the antithesis of the popular Latin America hero of lore: the bandana-wearing, Che Guevara firebrand. He avoids the conflict at first and concentrates on his music, which he performs with his son and his grandson. It's only when his offspring is dragged into the struggle and joins the rebels that the elderly farmer decides to act.
The photography is magnificent and Vargas uses it to good effect, especially the close-ups that show Don Plutarco's dignified stand. It's ironic that a black-and-white film that lasts roughly an hour and forty minutes tells more about the history of a particular period in Mexico - or Latin America, if we go by the film's tagline - than Mel Gibson's two-and-half-hour gorefest 'Apocalypto'.
Ángel Tavira died in 2008. 'El Violín' was the only movie in which he took part since he was a musician by profession. May this review be a tribute to his memory and a commendation to Francisco Vargas for making such a brilliant film.
Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 20th June at 10am (GMT)