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A filmmaker's tale of harmony giving way to discord

Mexico's struggles are a key part of Francisco Vargas' `El violin,' which has been hailed at Cannes and beyond.

June 15, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — It took months, but Mexicans finally are getting to see the movie that some here have called the country's most socially significant work of cinema in many moons.

Even before it arrived in theaters here at the beginning of May, "El violin" (The Violin), the debut feature by writer-director Francisco Vargas, had been showered with more than 30 international awards. A number of Mexican film critics have pronounced it an unalloyed masterpiece. One prominent Mexican journalist, Carmen Aristegui, said it ranked among "the most important movies that have been produced in our country in the last years."

Yet because Hollywood movies dominate the multiplexes, it has taken Vargas more than a year to bring his film to his native land. Now that it has arrived, this deceptively modest movie about an octogenarian fiddle player embroiled in an Indian peasant uprising has had to elbow its way through the summer-escapist thickets.

While big-budget sequels-of-sequels commandeer scores of screens in the Mexican capital, "El violin" has been showing in about 18 theaters. (The movie, which was funded by the Mexican national film agency, is being distributed by Canana Films, whose owners include Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal. In the U.S., it will be released by Film Movement, opening Dec. 5 in New York.)

But while some commentators have decried how long it has taken for "El violin" to reach Mexico, its director isn't complaining.

On a recent evening over tacos and beer at an out-of-the-way restaurant here, Vargas held forth calmly and openly about the challenges his movie has faced and about what he hopes it may achieve. He was joined by the actor Gerardo Taracena, who portrayed the cruel Mayan warrior Middle Eye in Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto." (That's Taracena under several layers of makeup and war paint, with most of his body hair removed.)

In "El violin," Taracena plays Genaro, the musician son of the main character, the one-handed violinist Don Plutarco. But playing music is only the men's day job, so to speak.

As the audience quickly discovers, father, son and even Don Plutarco's grandson (Mario Garibaldi) are actively supporting a ragtag army of indigenous rebels fighting to hold on to their ancestral farmlands. The conflict puts the rebels on a collision course with the Mexican army and leads to a fateful encounter between Don Plutarco and the captain in charge of quelling the uprising (Dagoberto Gama).

Shot in poetic black and white by director of photography Martin Boege Pare, "El violin" is a seemingly simple film composed of multiple harmonies and dissonances, much like the aching folk music that supplies its soundtrack.

"There are two things, two forces, two characters, dramatically speaking," Vargas says. "On one side, the guerrillas, on the other, the army. On one side the sound of weapons, of war, and on the other side the sound of the country, of tradition, of custom, of the people, of the forest -- which is the music. And it makes us see that war is a stupidity, that those that believe war is the way of solving things are mistaken."

Like other elements of the film, the actors are a mixture of the polished and the homespun, of professionals and nonprofessionals. In the single most daring piece of casting, Vargas recruited Angel Tavira, a real-life musician who'd never acted before, for the part of Don Plutarco.

Vargas previously had met Tavira while filming a documentary, "Tierra Caliente," about the distinctive folk music of the so-called Hot Lands of the central Mexican states of Guerrero and Michoacan. "He [Tavira] was in front of our noses for four years, and I didn't realize it," Vargas says.

His bold choice paid off. Tavira won a best actor award at the 2006 Cannes festival for his performance as the stoic, inscrutable violinist.

Serious and intense when speaking about his art, Vargas is relaxed and at times almost self-effacing when discussing the plaudits that have come his way.

He says that his personal love of Mexican popular music inspired him to make it the film's thematic center. From the son, or rural roots music, of coastal Veracruz to the corridos sung in the borderlands, Mexican popular music preserves "the customs, the roots, the history of the people," he says. But because much of this traditional music has had minimal commercial value, today it is becoming endangered, as young listeners turn to hip-hop and reggaeton.

Although Mexican cinema lately has evinced a nervy, noir-ish streak in such movies as "Amores Perros" and "Battle in Heaven," Vargas says that the national product is still often defined by picturesque cliches. The country's persistent image, he says, is a folkloric one, "showing a Mexico that's colorful, marvelous, beautiful, precious."

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