Program Notes: The Red Violin (1998)

Most movies are about people.

Some films are about animals: Black Beauty (a horse), Lassie Come Home and The Incredible Journey (pets travel across the country to be reunited with their owners).

And fewer still are films in which the central character is an inanimate object, a thing with no will of its own. One of these is The Red Violin, the 300-year story of a musical instrument described by one character as “The single most perfect acoustic machine I have ever seen.”

Offhand I can think of only two other movies starring an object. From the early ‘50s we have Winchester ’73, a Western about a priceless rifle that is passed from one owner to another as it is stolen, sold, lost, and found. James Stewart plays its original owner and reclaims the weapon in the end, but not before it passes through the hands of outlaws, Indians, a whiskey peddler, and other frontier types.

Film Screening:
The Red Violin (1998)
Saturday, Sep. 14 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

A decade later we got The Yellow Rolls-Royce, about a hugely expensive car that occupies the garages of British aristocrats, an American gangster, and a wealthy widow. Among the film’s many international stars were Rex Harrison, Jeanne Moreau, Shirley MacLaine, and George C. Scott.

The Red Violin, a Canadian production directed by François Girard and written by Don McKellar, is an epic yarn, a bit of fiction inspired by real events and personalities.

The film’s very title, The Red Violin, references the “Red Mendelssohn,” a Stradivarius long in the family of composer Felix Mendelssohn and now owned by performer Elizabeth Pitcairn.

The film begins in 1681 in Cremona, Italy, where the master instrument maker Bussotti has set aside his finest violin as a present for the unborn child his young wife is carrying. But as we shall learn, along with its brilliant musical tones this particular violin brings much heartache.

The wife and baby die in labor, and the bitter Bussotti covers the cursed instrument in a varnish that contains the blood of his dead wife. Maybe that’s why it has such a distinctive tone.

Next thing you know a century has passed and the violin is being played by an orphan boy in an Austrian monastery. The kid’s a genius (think Mozart) but sickly – and he clings to the instrument like some children clutch a teddy bear. Again, tragedy intervenes.

The violin then passes through several generations of gypsies before falling into the hand of Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng), a sort of flamboyant Paganini type who is among the elite of the European musical world. He’s also a randy bugger who often arrives at his concerts late because he’s been dallying with his mistress (Greta Scacchi).

Anyway, the violin next finds itself in China, traveling through households and pawn shops. In the 1970s it is in the possession of a young woman (Sylvia Chang) who must hide it from the thugs of Mao’s rampaging Red Guard, which has declared such Western instruments to be decadent.

Finally the violin pops up on the auction block in Montreal as part of a large shipment of musical instruments shipped over from China. An appraiser (Samuel L. Jackson) recognizes that this is a legendary instrument but tries to hide its value from his employers.

You see, he has plans – criminal plans – to make the violin his own.

Throughout the film, whenever the violin is played, we’re hearing acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell. He’s unseen, but very much a member of the cast.

Other films in the series “Cinematic Intermezzo”

September is Classical Music Month. This film series offers title that explore the other long-haired music.

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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