Music hath charms to sooth the savage breast
To soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.
—William Congreve (1670-1729)
To some, the notion of art as the measure of a civilization is as romantic as—for others—the belief that “liberating” the oppressed—reluctantly on occasion—is God’s (or insert the deity of your choice) most hallowed work. In religion, music is used largely in ritual; in combat, it’s frequently employed to summon troops to the next bloodbath or fill trembling hearts with shallow pride. But when all is dead and done, shouldn’t artistic truth conquer all?
As revealed through the eyes of director Francisco Vargas, it appears that the determination of one elderly farmer/violinist can overcome the roadblocks (literal to the besieged village; emotional to the source of ruthless interrogation tactics) of a military captain by using the proverbial power of song.
Partially inspired by Mexican virtuoso Carlos Prieto’s book, The Adventures of a Cello, Vargas has fashioned a timeless testament to all that is wrong with the world. Shot purposefully in black-and-white, it is the shades of grey that capture the eye and imagination. From the opening’s horrific scene setting the “standard” of torture, rape and abuse of power, just enough is shown to let the uncomfortable mind fill in the grisly blanks.
The story then shifts to three generations of the Hildalgo tribe. Don Plutarco (brilliantly portrayed and largely performed by Don Angel Tavira) plays his fiddle with a bow that has to be tied onto the stump that was once his hand. With son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena), on guitar and grandson Lucio (Mario Garibaldi), working the crowd, the family trio ekes out a living in town—innocence personified. But that’s just a false front for Genaro’s real purpose on this journey—he’s come to transport a cache of weapons to his guerrilla colleagues. It’s been painstakingly built up at the local taverna. Time is running out—without weapons how can they mete out deadly revenge on their uniformed oppressors? Suddenly, some soldiers burst in and lock down the bar. The guns and ammo must remain stashed—ready to kill for another day.
Dagoberto Gama brings a carefully crafted performance as the music-starved commandant who regrets his role as chief exterminator, but opines to his new friend that “he’s just following orders.” The cat and mouse posturing with his command performer and potential teacher is developed magnificently by Vargas’ lean script (skirting the direct question as to the origin of his missing hand sets the table for the twist and turns to come in the cornfield) and Martín Boege Paré’s beautifully structured and balanced cinematography never wastes a frame. Magical are the many scene shifts, foreshadowed aurally by another violin tune. The film—like a carefully composed sonata—lets each movement reveal itself as the natural consequence of what preceded.
With Brahms-like inevitability, and as the betrayals and body count continue unabated, there’s a brief flurry of hope that the youngest generation will learn from their elders’ mistakes.
The orphaned Lucio’s maturing voice declaims “The noble are no more,” then rides away on his bicycle with one of his grandfather’s smuggled revolvers “lovingly passed down.” Little wonder nothing ever really changes. JWR