Saturday, December 16, 2006

28. Mexican film "El Violin" (2005) by director Francisco Vargas: Riveting debut performance by an elderly actor and impressive photography


Imagine that you look like a grandfather in real life. Imagine that your right palm has been amputated but you play a violin with a bow strapped to the maimed arm. Imagine a director wanting to use you as a lead actor in a feature film. Imagine you win a Cannes Film Festival Best Actor prize for the Un Certain Regard section of the festival for the role. It's not a dream--it happened to Mexican actor Don Angel Tavira in the Mexican film El Violin or The Violin, directed by Francisco Vargas.

I caught up with this film at the on-going International Film Festival of Kerala, India, where it won the Silver Crow Pheasant award, the best film award bestowed on a film among the 14 competing entries by the 6200 delegates attending the festival.

I do not know how Tavira lost his palm but I learned that the director made the film keeping the future actor in mind. Tavira looks like Charles Vanel in his later years. He exudes a sincerity that touches the viewer and is not easily forgettable. He mixes sincerity with the wizened touch of an old fox.

The film is similar to Irish filmmaker Ken Loach's The wind that shakes the barley in many ways. Only The Violin is shot in black and white while Ken Loach shot his lush color. The photography is in no way amateurish. Both films are about the poor fighting mighty oppressors--in the case of El Violin poor villagers fighting a cruel Mexican army.

Finer points of the film include a marvelous dialog between grandfather and grandson that speaks highly of the director screenplay writer's Vargas' writing capability. Yet he has only made four films.

As one might have guessed the violin case and violin player are key to the development of the film. Music is a great leveler--the brutes and the aesthetes both appreciate good music.

Vargas choice to film in black and white is commendable. The violence and rape that launches the film is not extended into the film as other directors would have been tempted to do. Interestingly the strength of the film is that it does not show violence at later stages--something that Ken Loach could not restrain himself from. Violence for Vargas is not gratuitous--it is to provide the focal point. The rest of the violence is only for the viewer to imagine. Now that's good cinema.

This time Vargas had a great actor. Can he make equally good films without such innate talent of Don Tavira? My guess is that he can repeat this feat with others too. Vargas has an eye for talent, for good photography and a flair for good scriptwriting.

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