Music to die for

In its blunt portrayal of guerrilla war in Mexico,
El Violin has a recoil that will dislocate your senses


El Violin
Francisco Vargas Quevedo, Mexico
2005, Soda Pictures
98 minutes, Spanish with English subtitles

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

LATAMROB rating: ****

THIS DEBUT film by director Francisco Vargas Quevedo is based on events that occurred in the 1970s in the Mexican state of Guerrero, when peasants were fighting a guerrilla war against the country’s despotic single-party regime.

The plot is centred on Don Plutarco, an elderly busker who gets caught in the crossfire between the impoverished peasants who have taken up arms, including his son Genaro, and an abusive and brutal occupying army.

Soldiers take Don Plutarco’s village and the locals are forced to move to a safe area. When he realises that his son is involved in the struggle but the guerrilleros had left their ammunition in their village, Don Plutarco decides to play a different tune and pretends to be an innocent bystander in order to retrieve the stash.

After arriving at a military checkpoint, the old man manages to win the sympathy of a high-ranking officer because of his music. The commander orders him to leave the violin at the army camp and to come back the following day to play for the troops.

Complicity and mistrust

A weird relationship of complicity and mistrust develops between soldier and peasant until the day the old man finally manages to retrieve the bullets to deliver to the guerrillas.

Director Vargas cleverly raises the question of choices in life as the soldier mentions that he would have liked to have had the chance to become a musician if he had ever had the option. “I did not even have anything to eat, so I got into this.”

Beautifully filmed in black and white in the tradition of El Cine Mexicano, El Violin is not the picture postcard image of an extremely beautiful country but a harsh, truthful account of everyday life for the majority in the Mexican countryside, where even after 40 years of a quashed guerrilla movement abuse by the authorities remains common.

The viewer is shocked from the very first scene of torture and rape – crudely and convincingly portrayed – and although the region and era remain blurred, the poverty and resentment captured in this scene remain timeless. Some critics have dared to note that, voluntarily or involuntarily, it depicts violin in its crude meaning in Mexican slang of “rape”.

Despite this, Vargas Quevedo has not produced a polemical pamphlet but, by using non-professional actors, a curious story that resembles a documentary.

Convincing interpretation

El Violin is particularly notable for the convincing interpretation of Don Plutarco by Angel Tavira, a genuine musician who still plays despite having lost his hand when he was a teenager. With no experience of acting at all, Tavira participated in the movie in a role for which he won the Best Actor Award in the Un Certain Regard at the 59th Cannes Film Festival.

Vargas has mentioned that Don Plutarco is a metaphor for music, tradition and resistance, but the real metaphor in this film is that of the blank paper the old man signs promising 10 hectares to a greedy landowner in exchange for a mule.

The landscape painted for viewers is one of despair as the fight between army and peasants is nowhere near even, and it seems that, by casually accepting there “only were a few rebels” the old man gives away the guerrillas before he can even retrieve the stash of ammo he has put in his violin case.

The plot does have some flaws, perhaps principally the fact that this canny veteran seems naively convinced that he will trick the army, but, that aside, El Violin has a recoil that will dislocate the shoulders of violinists and soldiers the world over.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer