El Violín Review
Made in 2005, the first feature film from Mexican director Francisco Vargas has slowly been gaining plaudits and awards as it makes its way around the international film festival circuit. Set in Mexico during the 1970s, pitting ordinary villagers against the abuses of federal troops, it’s a modest little film, traditionally structured and attractively photographed, but it has a simple point to make about human values and it makes it most effectively.
Initially, the means by which the film draws the stark distinction between good and evil is a little heavy-handed in the manner of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. The government troops are murderers, rapists and torturers who show no mercy to poor villagers, driving them from their lands and destroying their villages in their search for guerrilla rebels. On the one extreme of this Manichean divide there is the Capitán of the Federales (Dagoberto Gama) and on the other there is Don Plutarco (Ángel Tavira), an old one-handed violinist who returns to the village the troops are occupying daily to play on the violin for the music loving Captain in the hope that he will be allowed to inspect the growth of his crops.
The set-up is all a little too neat, the film setting up this situation at its own delicate pace with a touch too much prettiness in the compositions and immaculate framing of the crisp black and white photography, lingering over views of sunsets and landscapes. Even scenes of torture and abuse by the soldiers, while certainly making a strong impact, are framed with studied eye-catching compositions. Central to the film of course is the violin, another classical cinematic device heavy with symbolic meaning in a situation that seems at odds with the grittiness of the real-life situation that is endured by Don Plutarco’s son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena), who is trying to regroup and arm the rebels, and with the deprivations suffered by the ordinary people driven from their lands.
The film nevertheless persists with Don Plutarco’s daily visits to the village to play violin for the Captain and through this the film, and the violin, slowly and gradually takes on another rhythm and a level of meaning, picking up a more subtle dialogue between the old man and the enemy Captain that avoids the more typical rhetoric of political injustice. Playing off the symbolic representation and exchange between the dialogue of a musical instrument and that of the gun, and firmly attaching it to the passing on of tradition - much like Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom - allows the film however to more effectively make its point and express the human values that drive it.
El Violín is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is Region 2 encoded.
A beautifully photographed film in crisp, high-contrast black-and-white, the transfer on this edition of the film is everything it should be. Progressively encoded and anamorphically enhanced at a ratio of 1.85:1, the image is clean, without a mark, sharp and beautifully toned. There is a slight level of grain which is inherent in the image and this is well handled by the transfer, which remains stable throughout and barely shows a flicker of macroblocking compression even when handling the more difficult night-time scenes, mist and smoking fires. Most pleasingly, there are no cross-colouration or discolouration issues to spoil the monochrome tones. The transfer could have made more use of available space to improve the bit-rate (only 5.5GB of the disc space is used), but as it is, any difference would be scarcely discernable. If there are any flaws in the image as it is, they would be very minor, but I couldn’t see any problems here at all.
The audio track, likewise, is beyond reproach. I don’t know whether there should be a surround mix for the film, but the Dolby Digital 2.0 track used here is excellent. It’s dynamic and effectively dispersed across the front and centre to achieve a strong ambience, picking up the smallest of sounds and blending them well with other elements of dialogue and music.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font. These are optional and can be removed if required. The translation is good, but slightly tones down some of the stronger swear words. The film nevertheless still rates a UK 15 certificate on account of some scenes of strong violence.
Some on-line retailers have the DVD listed as containing a Making of featurette and an earlier 50-minute music documentary made by Francesco Vargas, but there are unfortunately no extra features on the DVD. There is certainly space on the dual-layer disc for these features, but clearly they have been dropped at the last minute. In its place all we have for extra features is just a Trailer Reel for other Soda titles.
El Violín is perhaps a little too studiously photographed and academically structured around an unclear and unspecified political situation that sets rebels and poor villagers against evil government troops, but first-time feature director Francisco Vargas nevertheless manages to draw some fine performances and meaningful human values from the situation, finding something to say about music, tradition, family and the community. Soda’s DVD release doesn’t have much in the way of supplementary features, but the transfer of this finely photographed film is very impressive indeed.