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Review by Jay Rittenberg

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Directed by: Francois Girard
Written by: Francois Girard and Don McKellar
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Don McKellar, Carlo Cecchi, Sylvia Chang, Greta Scacchi, and Jason Flemyng

Francois Girard's hauntingly beautiful film will exhaust you in the same fashion as it did me. It wastes no time in spanning the globe - covering multiple continents over a time period of roughly 300 years, a track record that would make Indiana Jones proud. The various characters' lives touched in profoundly different and powerful ways, leading the watcher through a multitude of emotions. This film is also as pleasing to the eyes as it is to the ears, as Alain Dostie's handy camera work is matched by John Corigliano's music score.

Girard and cowriter Don McKellar, who also stars in the film, not only spent quite a while on this project (and it shows!), but they have given in a perfect title. The red violin on display throughout is the focal point of this film and asymbol of utter perfection to the set of characters who possess it.

The Red Violin tells the story of how one musical instrument passes many hands through the centuries and touches an equal number of hearts. The director is not only able to produce this effect on screen, but he does it flawlessly by starting his story in present day Montreal, where the violin is up for sale to a passionate throng, who are aware of the unique beauty and history this beautiful object possesses. Among them is Charles Morritz (solid work as usual by Samuel L. Jackson), an appraiser, who's simply in love with the instrument.

Days before the actual bidding for the piece, Morritz spends endless nights researching and analyzing the piece for its authenticity. As he continues digging for the violin's origins, Girard guides the audience through its history by presenting a handful of short stories of the violin's previous owners. The team of Girard and McKellar do a fine job here as the vignettes come together nicely as a whole, each weighing equally in importance.

The film reveals that the instrument is first constructed in Italy, in 1861 by master craftsman Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) for his unborn son, who he dreams will someday become a violinist. His dreams are shattered when his wife Anna (Irene Grazioli) dies in childbirth. The film then fast-forwards a century later where the violin has made its way to an order of monks, who run an orphanage near the outskirts of Vienna. It soon becomes the property of one of the little boys: a shy and gifted young musician named Kaspar Weiss (Christoph Koncz). The boy becomes attached to it, but doesn't realize the true scope of its power. His mentor Georges Poussin (Jean-Luc Bideau) does, however, and takes the young prodigy under his wing. Poussin's intentions are all selfish at the start, but he quickly finds himself falling in love with the little boy as a caring father figure.

With time, the violin finds its way to a family of gypsies. It is here where world famous concert violinist Frederick Pope (an amusing performance by Jason Flemyng) comes into possession of the piece, which brings his performances both at jam-packed concert halls, and in the bedroom with his lover Victoria (period piece veteran Greta Scacchi) up a level. The violin then winds up in a Shanghai pawnshop during the Cultural Revolution in China. This is where a young woman named Xiang Pei (Sylvia Chang) does anything she can to save it from destruction from those who view it as a symbol of evil. The film ends where it begins: in the auction house as bidders raise the stakes on the one thing that they must have and experience for themselves.

The Red Violin works on many levels, and uses two different techniques effectively, keeping the viewer involved. By following this approach, he manages to effectively hold the viewer in suspense, while slowly building up the tension throughout the course of the film.

The first technique involves the use of tarot cards. They are introduced thanks to Bussotti's late wife Anna, who visits a fortune-teller to seek out her future. What she doesn't know, however, is that the violin's (and not her) future would be spelled out with the luck of the deck. The other technique that the director employs, which could be seen as an annoyance if not handled properly, is the recreation of scenes. For example, the scenes at the auction house, which act as a gateway to the violin's past, are re-shot at different angles. After each vignette, the audience is transported back to the present day, where the bids on the violin continue. At first you may be leery of this Jackie Brown type of story telling, but you'll quickly appreciate its importance.

Although the various stories and performances are equally well constructed and executed, it is hard not to point out the fine work of Tarantino-regular Jackson, who shows his versatile range with a subdued performance in a film that you just can't picture him in. The way in which he caresses and looks at the instrument (as if he were the original owner himself) is priceless and speaks volumes.

This is an excetionally effective period piece production, with handsome photography and lavish costumes. Since the stories are featured in their native tongues (there's very little English spoken in the film), the viewer gets a good "international" taste and feel of how this violin does indeed touch lives. You also don't have to be a music connoisseur to fall in love with the film's soundtrack. You are rewarded twice: first, by the director, whose film feels like a flawless musical composition, but then (as a bonus) we also get to enjoy John Corigliano's musical score (with the help of the London Philharmonic Orchestra).

The Red Violin is the kind of film Four Rooms dreamed of becoming. It works simply because all its elements successfully come together as a whole producing a passionate and memorable piece of work. By the end of the film, you'll find yourself also drawn to this haunting portion of wood that's been shot at, broken, and pieced back together. We appreciate its existence, how it develops a life of its very own, and how someone like Charles Morritz, who never owned it and will never have the money to purchase it outright, will do anything he can to have it become a part of his life forever.

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