A red violin travels through history from its birth to present day where an auction takes place with it as the main attraction.

The Lowdown

The Meridian Collection is a new brand that promises to present significant works of world cinema. The label chooses to be elite in that it only selects extra features that point out the aspects celebrating the creative impact of the films. I don’t know if this DVD really reaches that level of excellence in presentation, but they could not have picked a better movie to start their banner with than this 1998 Canadian film.

The Red Violin tells the story of a very special, almost mythical, violin, as it travels through time. The instrument starts its life in 1681 Cremona, where Nicolo Bussotti (Cecchi) crafts a perfect violin. He promises it to his soon-to-be-born son, but when his wife Anna (Grazioli) dies during childbirth, the violin is passed on through time. It travels to a child prodigy named Kaspar in Germany (1793) who would be trained by a master musical instructor. It would go through a gypsy procession and into the hands of a wealthy, yet eclectic concert violinist named Frederick Pope (Flemyng) in Oxford (1890). It next travels to late 1960s Communist Shanghai, where the violin and other European instruments were frowned upon.

A unique aspect of this film is the structure. Throughout the movie, we see the same scene repeated from different points of view, as they introduce a new time period and location. This scene is an auction taking place in Montreal, 1997. Charles Morritz (Jackson) is an expert called in to appraise various instruments for the auction. When Charles sees the Red Violin, he begins to grow curious and investigates the origins of it, to learn if it really is the mythical violin he has always searched for. Each time we return to this auction, we see a different person representing the historical figures that the instrument passed through the hands of. The descendants of the monks that gave the instrument to the child prodigy, a representative of the Pope Foundation and the son of a Chinese woman who once owned the instrument are all there to bid for the right to return the violin to what they believe is its rightful home.

A final running theme throughout the movie takes place with Anna, the wife from the first story. She is having her future read by a servant using tarot cards. As each story begins, we see the next card being turned over and it turns out the future being told is not that of Anna, but that of the violin as it passes through time. It is this story that leads to the final conclusion and the reason the violin is cursed.

The film won an Academy Award for its score, composed by John Corigliano. For a biography of a specific instrument, you must have a score that is believable and the violin performances are masterful. It was only Corigliano’s third and final theatrical score, but cements his legacy with its beauty and elegance. In 2001 he would receive the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2, and continues to work in symphony.

An item that might be overlooked because of the musical excellence is the cinematography. Alain Dostie would win the Genie Award for best Canadian Cinematography for the picture, and it was well deserved. Whether it was the mountains of Germany, the open landscapes of Cremona or the enclosed auction house, the camera lives a life of its own taking in its surroundings and painting a beautiful portrait, helping to emphasize the story while never distracting from it.

An interesting decision was to use the dialect of the specific region instead of shooting it all in English. The movie uses subtitles and switches to whatever language the story was telling at the time. It is a daring choice, but works very well to tell the story in a way that proves to be a literal representation of the passage of time.

I was very surprised with this film. The Red Violin has a little something for everyone, from danger to romance to intrigue, and moves at a pace that is relaxing yet never drags. The story reveals clues at a nice pace, where it is easy to follow, yet keeps you wanting more until the final reveal. It’s a beautiful movie, both to the eyes and ears, and is a perfect introduction to the new Meridian Collection. If the rest of their releases are as great as this first one, they will be a label to keep your eyes on.

The Package

There is an audio commentary with writer/director Francius Girard and C-Writer Don McKellar. Girard mentions up front that he never watches his movies again after the premiere. This would be the first time he had watched this film since its debut. It is interesting because they were asked to make a musical biography and chose to do it over an instrument instead of an individual. The two provide lots of good information and describe the “how’s and why’s” of the making of the film in great detail. My only complaint is they speak in a low, slow rhythm that makes it hard to keep the viewer’s attention.

The Auction Block is a featurette that explains The Red Violin was inspired by a real life Stradivarius violin known as the “Red Mendelssohn” that was purchased at an auction for $1.8 million. It is an 18-minute feature that explains the interest of violins in auctions. There is a feature called The Oscar Winning Chaconne, detailing the making of the score of the movie and talks in detail with the composer, John Corigliano. He explains in the feature why he prefers symphony work to film score work. A trailer for the film rounds out the extras.