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The Red Violin
1998 - - 126 Mins.
Director: François Girard
Producer: Niv Fichman
Written By: François Girard, Don McKellar
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Don McKellar, Carlo Cecchi, Irene Grazioli, Jean-Luc Bideau
Review by: James O'Ehley
A bit of an ‘art house’ hit upon its initial release in the late 1990s, “The Red Violin” has been ‘reacquired’ by Lion’s Gate studios (whatever that means) and re-released on DVD on 20 May 2003 in the States.

If you’re a classical music fan, or just looking for an alternative to the latest brain-dead blockbuster weighing down the shelves at your local video store, then “The Red Violin” is worth either buying or renting out.

Derided by some contrarian critics for being ‘safe’, “The Red Violin” is an ambitious and some times uneven epic that stretches several continents and centuries as the film relates some major episodes in the existence of a violin with a red finish built by an Italian master violinmaker in the late 17th century. By ‘safe’, I suppose critics meant that it wasn’t the latest French 'art' flick to feature graphic anal sex or whatever.

Despite dealing with some adult themes, this movie probably will make a safe rental for those with more sensitive dispositions (my wife likes this film) and, erm, more bourgeois sensibilities.

The violin of the title becomes a symbol of artistic perfection as the movie progresses. It changes hands several times: from an orphaned boy violinist to a 19th century British violinist that comes across as a mixture between an egoistical rock star and Paganini. Ah, those 19th century romantics! So taken by their passions! Ken Russell territory all right . . .

Then it’s off to 20th century China for the film’s most moving sequence. During the Cultural Revolution, one of the most sadly misguided moments in the history of Communist China, the violin – and whoever owns it – is in mortal danger as so-called 'symbols of Western decadence'.

Whoever could have thought that classical music could be a danger to the state? However, historians aware of Stalin’s hectoring of composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev will tell you otherwise . . .

With the film’s episodic flashback style, “The Red Violin” almost comes off as a cultured version of “Pulp Fiction”. The presence of the Bad Ass Himself, Samuel L. Jackson, no doubt contributes to this. Despite its longish running time of just over two hours, “The Red Violin” moves briskly and even leaves some surprises and twists for the ending.

Add some gorgeous locales, a cast of hundreds and you have a suitably epic film. Note should also be made of the excellent soundtrack music by John Corigliano. Corigliano’s previous film work included the music for the 1980s “Altered States”, that wild real-time acid flashback movie starring William Hurt and directed by Ken Russell.

Incidentally, Corigliano wrote all the music for the film: both the baroque era pieces as well as the later 19th century music. Really quite an achievement.

As I said, this is the second time that “The Red Violin” has been released on DVD and to be honest, this latest release seems to be the inferior version. The ‘special’ features aren’t very special at all and contain what one usually expects from nay DVD release, namely: trailer, English & Spanish Subtitles, Interactive Menus and Scene Access.

Apparently, the previous DVD had some production and cast notes as well as a music audio only track. Not that these music-only tracks serve as any alternative to buying the soundtrack on CD: the silences in-between are just too annoying.

While the audio and anamorphic transfer is excellent (except from some minor film stock scratches in some early scenes), I have a slight niggle with the subtitles.

As you might have guessed, with the film’s many settings across the times and globes, the movie’s dialogue is spoken in anything from English, French and German to Mandarin and Italian. So switch on the English subtitles before starting the movie! (English subtitles aren’t set as a default.)

While the subtitles are quite legible (in nice big yellow lettering), the problem is that the English subtitles also serves as subtitles for the hard-of-hearing. In other words, dialogue spoken in English also has subtitles and descriptions such as ‘audience clapping’ and so forth.

This is a minor annoyance though. And remember: not liking subtitles reflects poorly on your upbringing and is no reason not to check out the movie!

One wishes for some extra features though: this is all fiction, but does some of it have any foundation in fact? Probably, and a good director’s commentary would have welcome.

Otherwise, this DVD is definitely worth a rental for anyone who ever enjoyed movies such as “Amadeus” and “Immortal Beloved.”
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

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