The Violin opens with violence and closes with high tension—but in between, its pace is so leisurely and story so spare that it feels as if writer-director Francisco Vargas wasn’t quite ready to abandon the short films on which he honed his craft before advancing to his first feature. Indeed, the film was originally a short. But the full-length movie has become Mexico’s most-decorated film in history, its unhurriedness touched with small moments of tenderness and a nearly documentary tone before unleashing an emotional wallop.
Shot in lovely black and white, The Violin captures the day-to-day lives of three generations of peasant musicians. Don Plutarco (Ángel Tavira) and his grown son, Genaro (Gerardo Taracena), play the violin and guitar on rural Mexican streets while Genaro’s boy, Lucio (Mario Garibaldi), collects money. They perform and wander until they have enough money to eat, spending the rest of the day relaxing on roadsides or in cantinas. When Genaro exchanges looks with a menacing stranger in a watering hole one night, you might expect a fight to break out. Instead, he’s taken into a back room and allowed his choice of munitions. Genaro and Plutarco may be simple farmers, but they’re also part of a rebel movement. And when their oppressive government’s militias invade the revolutionaries’ compound, father and son must figure out a way to retrieve the arms they’ve buried in their land.
The most compelling chapter of The Violin is its last, which focuses on Plutarco and his strategy for surviving this blow to the revolt. He uses his age and his musical skills to his advantage, trying to persuade suspicious soldiers that he’s merely an old man who wants to check his crops. (When they ask his name, he responds, “Plutarco, at your service.”) They inspect his violin case and command him to play, a test he passes so easily and beautifully that the sentimental captain orders him to return daily. Plutarco’s patience in his attempt to win the soldiers’ trust is more effective than Genaro’s guns could ever be.
Tavira is, stunningly, a novice actor. His face deeply lined, with eyes that are thoughtful and vulnerable, Tavira is aching as Plutarco, expertly relaying an elderly man’s simultaneous capacity for wisdom, cunning, feebleness, and melancholy. The character is quiet when Genaro acts like father doesn’t know best—in fact, he tells him “the less you know, the better”—while teaching Lucio about their awful circumstances with gentle but honest parables. You may not remember how exactly this trio passed the time during most of the film’s 98 minutes, but Plutarco is a character you likely won’t forget.