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Originally published Friday, February 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Violin" changes tune after torturous start

Life-or-death matters are handled with compelling gravity in Francisco Vargas' "The Violin," one of the most powerful movies screened at...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"The Violin," with Don Ángel Tavira. Written and directed by Francisco Vargas. 98 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (includes rough language, a sex scene, a brief torture scene). In Spanish, with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum, today through Thursday.

Life-or-death matters are handled with compelling gravity in Francisco Vargas' "The Violin," one of the most powerful movies screened at last year's Seattle International Film Festival.

Back for a weeklong run at Northwest Film Forum, this Mexican drama takes the peasants' side in dramatizing a 1970s revolt. The script vividly explores the impact of government oppression on three generations of one rebellious family.

Plutarco, perfectly played by 81-year-old Don Ángel Tavira, is never the frail grandfather he appears to be. Managing to play the violin even though his right hand is a stump, he just gets by as a traveling musician, using his practiced performer's charm to smother guards' suspicions and get past checkpoints. (Tavira deservedly won an acting award at the 2006 Cannes festival for this performance.)

After raiding an ammunition dump in a cornfield, Plutarco supplies his son, Genaro, with handfuls of bullets. Distraught by the news that his wife has been captured, Genaro and his son, Lucio, seem increasingly helpless in a situation that only the old man can effectively manipulate.

At first, even Plutarco seems to be getting nowhere. When he discovers a guard captain who loves music and wants to take violin lessons, the ice begins to break — just enough to allow each man's humanity to become briefly evident. But as the uncompromising finale makes clear, this film is not any kind of heartwarmer.

Although it begins with a graphic torture scene that suggests more of the same is coming, "The Violin" becomes increasingly restrained in its use of violence. First-time writer-director Vargas makes a point about brutality, then refuses to dwell on it. The most shattering moment is one character's silent reading of a list of casualties; his changing expressions tell us all we need to know.

Working in black-and-white with a gifted cinematographer, Martin Boege, Vargas creates a darkened fairy-tale atmosphere, especially as campfires light up the faces of the actors and smoke drifts photogenically through forests. Glimpses of village life suggest a timeless quality, especially when the grandfather recites a legend about the origins of war.

Don't leave before the final credits of "The Violin," which briefly goes dark, apparently for emphasis, before it really ends with an expressive coda. The blank moment throws in a touch of mystery. Most likely it's meant as a tribute to Tavira, without whom the movie would be unimaginable.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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