Frame of `Violin' promising, but it sounds some false notes

June 25, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"The Red Violin" starts off with a promising conceit: Follow a single musical instrument through the ages, from its creation in 17th-century Italy to its placement on a New York City auction block. If only writer-director Francois Girard had not painted his canvas with such broad strokes.

Girard's last film was the sublime "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," an endlessly involving piece of movie-making that never resorted to cheap tricks to draw in its audience. But here, Girard is so determined to give his violin a dramatic story to tell that the film becomes more melodramatic than meditative -- not a fatal flaw, but a bit of a letdown. The film's starring musical instrument is created by master violin-maker Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) as a gift for his unborn son. Bussotti is overjoyed at the prospect of becoming a father, and he pours that joy into his creation. But his wife, Anna (Irene Grazioli), isn't so sure; she fears she is too old to give birth. And when a fortune teller sees bad portents in her future, she becomes even more afraid.

Anna's ultimate fate has grave consequences for both her husband and the violin, which soon leaves the Bussotti family and begins a centuries-long journey that takes it from an Austrian monastery to a British violin virtuoso to China during the Cultural Revolution.

The Italian and Austrian sequences that open the film show Girard at his best, delicately crafting slices of life with a real feel for time and place. In England, however, the story devolves into a sex romp between Jason Flemyng's devil-maned maestro and Greta Scacchi's fair-haired vixen. And the art vs. politics polemic that colors the China segment is way too obvious; you know what will happen as soon as Mao appears.

What really saves the film -- besides John Corigliano's beautiful musical score, played by Joshua Bell -- are the framing sequences woven throughout, with Samuel L. Jackson as an expert appraiser. His character first realizes the value of the red violin and then develops an emotional attachment to it that fulfills a lifelong quest.

Jackson's carefully controlled performance anchors the film. And his character's journey from wanting to possess the violin to being possessed by it captures just what the artistic muse can do -- something Girard's been trying to get at all along.

`The Red Violin'

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Carlo Cecchi, Jason Flemyng and Sylvia Chang

Directed by Francois Girard

Released by Lions Gate Films

Rating: Unrated (sexual situations, brief nudity)

Running time: 131 minutes

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 6/25/99

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