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THE RED VIOLIN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Samuel L. Jackson, Greta Scacchi, Jason Flemyng, Don McKellar
Director:  Francois Gerard
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Lions Gate
Features:  See Review
Length:  130 Minutes
Release Date:  June 3, 2008

"What do you do when the thing you most wanted, so perfect, just comes?"

Film ***1/2

The Red Violin is a nearly perfect film, with a structure that allows it to encompass the best of two worlds.  It combines the sumptuous beauty of a romantic period film with a modern fable of price versus worth.

The magnificent instrument that is the title character, of sorts, is the centerpiece of the film.  Through flashbacks and bits and pieces, we see the story of the violin, beginning with its creation, and ending in an auction house in Montreal, and its 300 year journey in between.  The story of the violin is, of course, the story of those whom the instrument touched over the years, and naturally, those who touched it as well.

The violin is created by a maestro in 17th century Italy, meant as a gift for his unborn son.  But when his beloved wife and the child both die during the birth, he finishes the instrument by applying red varnish, then sets it aside.

Over the course of the film, it ends up in many different hands…and some of the movie’s most well-conceived sequences demonstrate this notion.  During one memorable series, the violin remains in exactly the same position in front of the camera, as the backgrounds and musicians who play it dissolve from one to another.  Terrific use of editing, and demonstrates a way to exposit in a purely cinematic way.

The journey begins when it first goes to a monastery, and is used by a child prodigy, who is taken to Vienna by a poor but gifted teacher.  I don’t want to give away the terrific transitions in the story, but from there, the violin winds up in the hands of an English virtuoso, who uses its music in both public concert and private seduction, and later, goes to China, where under the Communist revolution, it becomes a symbol for evil Western cultural infiltration. 

Each story is brief, and sketched with broad strokes, but all of them seem full and satisfying.  The reason is the music.  We may not get histories or exposition with the characters involved, but when they pick up the violin and play, the notes that weep from it give us more information about these people, and what emotions are in them, than any ten pages of written script.  The violin is one of the most expressive instruments…the music that pours from it can seem like mirthful laughter or mournful tears.  The notes can calm and sooth, or they can slash through the silence like a scream.  This is one of the most masterful uses of music you’ll find in a motion picture.

And eventually, the story culminates in the auction, which is hinted at throughout the film.  By the time we actually experience it near the end, we know a little something about the people bidding on the violin, too, and how each one has some kind of connection with the stories we’ve experienced.  As a modern day appraiser (Samuel L. Jackson) begins to probe the mysteries the violin has kept over the course of three centuries, we fully realize that the value of the instrument stretches far beyond its worth as an antique or item of historical importance…or for that matter, even beyond the stories attached to it, and the individuals who expressed their passion, sorrow, fear or love through its music.

Please understand, I’m purposely avoiding as many specifics as I can in outlining the film.  To deprive viewers of experiencing the masterful way the picture unfolds and reveals itself over the course of a setting would be criminal.  It needs to be experienced first hand to be fully appreciated.

Video ****

This is an outstanding anamorphic transfer from Lions Gate.  The photography in this film is simply masterful, particularly in the many period settings, and this DVD captures the natural lighting and colors perfectly.  Images are sharp and crisply defined throughout, with excellent detail ranging to great depths in certain long shots.  Despite a few lower light settings, there is never any instance of grain…yet the contrast is always remarkably rendered.  I noticed no instance of color bleeding, unnatural flesh tones, or compression artifacts, and the print itself is very clean.  The palate of colors, though, is simply remarkable. 

Audio ****

The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is a completely satisfying listening experience.  The music is the star of the soundtrack, and it is beautifully captured in pristine, dynamic, digital sound.  All channels tend to be utilized in the presentation of the Oscar winning music, and as far as scores go, this really is one of the best and most well-presented on disc.

Features **1/2

The disc contains a commentary from director Francois Girard and his co-writer and actor Don McKellar, plus a look at Oscar-winning composer John Corigliano and "The Auction Block", showing the violin auctions and the high priced Stradivarius instruments.

Summary:

The Red Violin is a wonderfully crafted, cinematic journey that uses the technique of following a beautiful object as it travels through the years and touches many lives.  A touching, beautiful movie on an equally beautiful DVD, this is one you won’t regret picking up.

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