What to say about a movie as beautiful, as rich, as skillfully told, as thoroughly engaging—and yet, in my view, as finally disillusioning as “The Red Violin”?
We watched it last night at home on DVD, obviously not the best way to watch any film, but I have to say that I loved the whole thing, up until the last few scenes.
It’s the story of a perfect violin—an incontestable masterpiece—the last one ever made by a fictional craftsman in the Renaissance, completed as his beloved wife dies in childbirth and varnished in agony, after her death, with an admixture of her blood. Five separate story lines are hung, jewel-like, on two recurring threads: the first, where an ancient woman reads, one by one, the five Tarot cards of the craftsman’s wife before she goes into her fatal childbirth; and the second at a contemporary auction house, where the instrument is on the block, being sold off to the highest bidder. Cleverly interspersed with these scenes is a five-part story line that follows the history of the violin as predicted by those Tarot cards. Each story, through the centuries, adds its own piece of tragedy to the seemingly cursed history of this otherwise immaculate artifact. The characters—owners and players of the instrument—are sharply defined, each in some way a reflection of the age they represent: the neo-classical “raisonneur,” the Romantic genius, the victim of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China… and the age itself is skillfully evoked in costume, manner and décor. The photography is itself a masterpiece of color and movement, its dance of relationships beautifully choreographed and its plot revelations timed to keep the attention riveted throughout.
All of which makes it eminently worth the ride. And yet, and yet… As I see it, the film fails to provide the final redemption that it seems to hold out to us. In the final scenes, as the auction progresses, when bidders are vying for the instrument, each with their own peculiar passion and agenda, when human hunger for possession is exposed in all its petty venality, the violin (referred to throughout, by the way, as “she,” a clear reincarnation of the craftsman’s unfortunate wife) exerts its powerful spell to ensure the repetition of its fateful pattern: the scholar entrusted with proof of its provenance and authenticity falls in love with it himself, and steals it, literally, from the auction block, substituting a copy in its place. He is seen, in the last scene, in a taxicab, on the telephone, promising the instrument as a special gift to his daughter. Unredeemed by this dreadful ethical lapse, the violin will surely continue on its destructive path…
So what, I wonder, does the Dharma have to teach us about this at once wonderful and morally conflicted film? That the appearance of perfection is no more than an illusion? That true happiness can never be achieved by attachment to things that are inevitably transitory in nature, whether to the pleasures of the senses or the erotic satisfactions of the flesh, or to the possession of material objects, no matter how beautiful or perfect they may be? That every action has its consequences? And especially that unskillful actions, those motivated by imagined need or simple greed, have negative consequences in our lives? “The Red Violin” is in so many ways an object lesson in how easily we humans fall victim to our own delusions, and how we lay the ground for our own unhappiness. In striving to attain and hold on to impossible perfection, we lose sight of the deeper realities that impinge upon our lives, and the deeper sources of satisfaction we could draw on.
In a sense, perhaps, the most sympathetic character in this film is the small boy in 17th century Vienna, a Mozart-like prodigy whose talent those around him seek in their various ways to exploit for their own benefit or glory. Brought to perform before a powerful prince and potential patron, the child balks; we see the vast well of unbearable emotion rising to the surface as he stands there, silent, at the moment of what might have been his great achievement—and lets it all slip away from him as he keels over to the marble floor in a dead faint and expires, while the court in all its grandeur looks on, dismayed. It is as though this angelic child has chosen ecstatic oblivion over worldly success, unable to bear the burden of his gift. It’s a breathtaking moment, one that indicts the rapacious adult players even as it celebrates the innocent genius of childhood.
I would not have missed this film for anything, even though I found it eventually disturbing and deeply compromised in its meanings. It’s still a wonderfully challenging piece of work, and I recommend it highly to anyone who has not seen it.
(Oh, and if you haven't come across it yet, please stop by to read this delightful story about a much younger Barack Obama!)