"Calm down, boy, or you'll drop your taco," an elderly man says to his young grandson early on in The Violin, Francisco Vargas' movie set amidst the peasant uprisings in 1970s Mexico. It's one of those throwaway lines that, you realize later, sums up the movie's theme. For Plutarco Hidalgo, a dirt-poor farmer who makes some money on the side by playing folk tunes in the nearby village, has learned the value of patience. He's in his 80s and looks every bit of it, his face so weathered you expect it to drift away with the next mountain breeze. And during his time he's seen the centuries-old battle between brutal soldiers and hungry campesinos swing this way and that. The trick is to stay calm, hold on to your taco and choose your moment wisely.
Wisdom is something Plutarco's son, Genaro, lacks. He and his father perform together - he on guitar, Plutarco on violin while Genaro's young son, Lucio, passes the hat. But they're also involved in armed struggle, to varying degrees. And the movie's about how each of these generations responds to government repression. When soldiers take over their village, settling in for the long haul, someone needs to liberate the munitions hidden in a nearby cornfield. Genaro wants to sneak in under the cover of darkness, a possibly suicidal mission. But Plutarco has his own ideas. He wants to use music to soothe the savage beast. Once the savage beast has been soothed, Plutarco will carry the ammo out right under his nose.
Also a possibly suicidal mission, but not if you keep your wits about you. And Plutarco, as played by Angel Tavira, a legendary Mexican musician acting for the first time, is one cool customer. Tavira's face betrays no emotion, which would sabotage most performances. Here, it makes Plutarco seem all the more crafty. Likewise, the fact that Tavira long ago lost his right hand, making it rather challenging to saw away on a violin, plays into the character. The soldiers have trouble taking Plutarco seriously, especially the soldier in charge, a music lover played by Dagoberto Gama. For a movie that clearly sides with the rebel forces, The Violin does an admirable job of extending an olive branch to the occupying army. Not all of them are vicious murderers.
But some of them are. The movie opens with a torture scene that echoes throughout. That helps us remember that both sides mean business. Otherwise, the scenery - a lush countryside shot in glittering black-and-white - might lull us into a sense of complacency. Vargas may overdo it a bit with the artistry. There's a bravura pan through a campsite at night that culminates with a shot of the moon, perhaps too much of a good thing. And Plutarco is assigned a donkey, which can't help but remind us of Jesus entering Jerusalem. But the movie also seems very authentic, very lived in - so much so that you wonder how these people can go on. But on they go, with a musical instrument on one shoulder and a gun on the other.