[Screen It]


(1998) (Samuel L. Jackson, Don McKellar) (Not Rated)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Moderate Mild Heavy Moderate Mild
Minor None Moderate None Mild
Smoking Tense Family
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Drama: A meticulously crafted violin passes through the hands of various owners over three centuries while mysteriously touching all who possess it.
In 1681, musical instrument craftsman Nicolo Bussotti (CARLO CECCHI) has fashioned a special violin for his pregnant wife, Anna (IRENE GRAZIOLI) and their unborn child. Worried about a difficult birth, Anna consults a local fortune teller, Cesca (ANITA LAURENZI), who reveals five facts about her future. With each turn of a tarot card, the story moves to another time and place where the red violin has managed to appear.

As such, the next stop is one hundred or so years later in an orphanage outside Vienna. A young orphan prodigy, Kaspar Weiss (CHRISTOPH KONCZ), is so proficient with the violin that the monks have called Georges Poussin (JEAN-LUC BIDEAU), a poor but knowledgeable expert, to hear the boy. Impressed, Georges returns Kaspar to Vienna where he trains him for a grand audition that will seal his future.

With another turn of the cards the story moves forward to a band of gypsies who've acquired the violin and have temporarily settled on some land owned by Frederick Pope (JASON FLEMYNG), an English concert violinist who becomes enamored with the instrument. Soon, he not only uses it to seduce his audiences, but also novelist Victoria Byrd (GRETA SCACCHI) with whom he's having a passionate affair.

The violin then travels to China, where after sitting for years in a local pawn shop, finds itself in the middle of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. With foreign music and instruments banned, music teacher Chou Yuan (LIU ZIFENG) barely escapes with his life thanks to party member Xiang Pei (SYLVIA CHANG), who has a hidden love for such music.

Finally, and many years later, the violin appears at a 1997 auction, where Charles Morritz (SAMUEL L. JACKSON) has been called in to verify various instruments' authenticity and worth. Believing the centuries old violin to be the revered Red Violin, Morritz, with the aid of lab technician Evan Williams (DON McKELLAR), sets out to discover the violin's secrets and whether or not they're in possession of the real thing.

From that point on, and as the auctioneers prepare to accept bids for the valuable instrument, Morritz and various bidders do what they can to insure they gain possession of the legendary violin.

Unless they're fans of someone in the cast, "art house" films or stories concerning classical music, it's not very likely.
Although the film is not rated, it's the equivalent of an R due to several sexual encounters and nudity.
  • CARLO CECCHI plays a master craftsman who, under the strain of grief, goes to extreme measures to embody his instrument with the human spirit.
  • CHRISTOPH KONCZ plays a young orphan and musical prodigy with a bad heart.
  • JEAN-LUC BIDEAU plays a poor, but knowledgeable music expert who trains and pushes Kaspar quite hard, but ultimately cares for the boy when it initially seems he's only after fame and/or fortune through him.
  • JASON FLEMYNG plays an accomplished English concert violinist who has a passionate affair with a novelist (played by GRETA SCACCHI). When she leaves to continue writing, he soon becomes addicted to heroin and is later seen having sex with another woman.
  • SYLVIA CHANG plays a party member of the Chinese Cultural Revolution who not only saves the life of a musician (played by LIU ZIFENG), but also a prized violin, thus putting herself in danger with the anti-foreign, anti-music forces now ruling her country.
  • SAMUEL L. JACKSON plays a sometime curt instrument appraiser who, upon discovering that the violin he's certifying is quite valuable, does what he must to make sure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands.


    OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
    For full-time movie critics, the banality of repetitious, cookie cutter, assembly line film productions often make such films the bane of our existence. That's why we rejoice when every so often a filmmaker and their latest offering comes along and turns everyday cinematic conventions on their head. By delivering compelling, moving and/or unconventionally plotted films that are far different from the normal fair to which we're usually subjected, such films reinvigorate the industry as a whole.

    Of all the cinematic devices that can be used to achieve that worthy goal, a favorite of mine is when films play with time. I'm not referring to time travel movies -- although they can quite a bit of fun if properly thought out -- but ones whose plot temporally hops and skips both forward and backward through time, often revisiting the same moment but from a different perspective.

    Although Quentin Tarantino popularized the effect with "Pulp Fiction," it dates back to films such as Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" and was recently used to great acclaim in Doug Liman's "Go." Now it's been effectively used in "The Red Violin," the latest film from director François Girard and co-screenwriter Don McKellar. While a previous film of theirs, "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," contained -- yes, you guessed it -- thirty-two short "stories" -- they've parred this one down to just five.

    Contained within a plot that continually jumps both forward and backward through time, the five stories don't all focus on the same event from different perspectives like those other films. The present day auction footage, however, does serve as a jumping off point for the stories that repeatedly return to the auction and cumulatively raise the audience's expectations of what will occur in the final story.

    The temporal effect, while not as jarring as in "Pulp Fiction" or "Go" where the audience suddenly finds that the story has been rewound, is compelling. It also effectively ties together those rather disparate stories and makes what would initially seem to be a rather humdrum affair about a violin and its various owners far more intriguing.

    It also doesn't hurt that the films' technical merits are not only topnotch, but also imaginatively and effectively utilized. Being a film about a musical instrument, it's probably not that surprising that an important element is its sound. From the solo violin work that nicely changes in tone and elicited mood from one story to another, to John Corigliano's ("Altered States") score that's appropriately mesmerizing and foreboding, the film consistently sounds great.

    That's not to shortchange the visuals, however, as they're just as effective as the aural elements. Cinematographer Alain Dostie's ("Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould") efforts are both sumptuous and inventive, featuring many interesting, but thankfully not distracting effects.

    For example, a sequence involving various violin playing gypsies -- seemingly glued to the front of the camera so that they move in unison with it -- is mesmerizing and nothing less than perfectly executed for that particular moment.

    Constantly employing other interesting visuals and viewpoints -- such as peering out at Samuel L. Jackson's character from within the violin -- Dostie never lets the picture become boring to watch. The production design -- courtesy of François Séguin ("Love! Valour! Compassion!") -- is also very good, with each story having its own appropriately distinctive and completely believable look.

    That distinctive nature holds true for the stories themselves. While it's hard to imagine one film including the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a late 17th century Italian violin maker and a present day auction, this one manages to pull it off. Viewers, however, will probably have differing reactions to the various stories that, due to time constraints, never get fully developed.

    Therein lies the film's greatest problem. To give each story its due, that would require more screen time for each, but as a cumulative whole, the film starts to feel a little long by the time the fourth story -- set in revolutionary China -- rolls around. As such, one doesn't wish for the film to be much longer, but as it stands, some of the stories feel a bit shortchanged.

    It's not a horrible problem as each is compelling in its own right, but some may be bothered that just when the stories get interesting, they're abandoned for the subsequent ones. Fortunately and for the most part, the characters within them more than adequately survive the truncation. Although I felt somewhat disconnected from the characters in the Chinese segment and those involving the English musician and his literary mistress were a bit over the top, the remaining ones were quite interesting.

    As such, the performances in them are decent -- notwithstanding the somewhat campily romantic lovers -- and occasionally quite compelling. The standouts include Samuel L. Jackson as the intense appraiser who does a nice job of keeping his often fiery outbursts down to a smoldering simmer, French actor Jean-Luc Bideau as the poor, but knowing music teacher, and Christoph Koncz as his young and ailing charge.

    While the film's individual elements are admirable in their own right, the overall production is one that falls under the description of being greater than the sum of its parts. While some may complain of its slow tempo, somewhat disjointed nature or overall length, many will find the film quite intriguing.

    We certainly found it that way, and considering the interesting temporal jumps, the incredibly effective combination of visuals and music, and finally the subdued, but slightly creepy supernatural undercurrent that runs throughout it (a sequence near the end explains that part), think it's one of the more interesting pictures released this year. As such, we give "The Red Violin" a 7.5 out of 10.

    The following is a brief summary of the content found in this un-rated drama, which if rated, would certainly get an R. That's due to several sexual encounters that show nudity and movement, with another unseen one consisting of sexually related sounds.

    In one scene a character smokes opium, while in another a man slices a dead woman's wrist to collect her blood in an odd, homage sort of way (he uses it for another purpose). Her death and those of several other characters as well as some brief violence may be upsetting or unsettling to a few viewers, while others may not appreciate the brief and subdued supernatural like elements (tarot card reading, a seemingly cursed violin, etc...).

    Beyond that and some brief profanity, however, the rest of the film's categories have little or nothing in the way of major objectionable content. While it's not very likely that many kids will want to see this film, should you still be concerned about its appropriateness for anyone in your home who does want to see it, we suggest that you take a closer look at the listed content.

  • Georges has what appears to be a glass of wine with his meal.
  • We see what may be some sort of liquor in a glass next to Pope.
  • We see Pope smoking what's presumably opium from an opium pipe lit by his Oriental attendant.
  • Evan pours what appears to be wine for himself and Charles.
  • Although it's not gory or bloody, we briefly see a boy's body in a freshly opened grave (the work of grave robbers).
  • While neither bloody nor gory, we do see a dead man slumped over a table with his eyes wide open.
  • Blood runs from a dead woman's slit-open wrists into a bowel and is later mixed with another liquid.
  • Some viewers may not like the fortune telling aspects of the story (a pregnant woman visits a tarot card reader) or the slight supernatural aspects of the story regarding the violin.
  • It initially appears that Georges has some of both in the way in which he treats/trains Kaspar (as if he's hoping to gain fame and/or fortune from the boy's talent and that's why he pushes him so hard), but he turns out to really care for the boy.
  • A man for whom Kaspar is to audition has a pompous, aristocratic attitude toward the orphan boy.
  • We see that some gypsies have dug up graves for the belongings inside them.
  • Although Pope and Victoria aren't necessarily a couple (they appear to be having an affair), she catches him with another woman.
  • Some may see the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its edict that all things foreign -- including music -- are bad, as having some of both.
  • Charles lies to a bidder about the identify of the red violin.
  • A man plots and then steals the violin.
  • Getting bad news about his wife, Nicolo races through town with the messenger (as suspenseful music plays).
  • We see a boy collapse and then learn that he's died.
  • Having discovered Pope having sex with another woman, Victoria threatens both with a loaded pistol.
  • Communist party members -- informed that Xiang is harboring foreign music -- come looking for her (but don't find her).
  • Although it's not gory or bloody, we briefly see a boy's body in a freshly opened grave (the work of grave robbers), and later see a dead man slumped over a table with his eyes wide open (both may be unsettling to some viewers -- just from being dead bodies).
  • A man takes a knife and holds it to a dead woman's wrist that he then slices open to collect some blood.
  • A man steals the violin and appears destined to be caught or to face some horrible calamity (and is nearly hit by a car) based on what's happened to others who've possessed it.
  • Pistol: Aimed by Victoria at Pope and his lover after she's found them in a tryst. She then fires a shot that hits the violin.
  • Rifles: Worn by Chinese youths during a performance (while dressed like soldiers).
  • Knife: Used by a man to slit a dead woman's wrist.
  • Phrase: "Sluttish."
  • None.
  • Somewhat ominous music plays throughout much of the film, with several scenes also getting more traditional suspenseful music.
  • None.
  • In English: At least 3 S.O.B.s, 1 damn, 1 ass, and 2 uses of "G-damn," while the phrases "Dear God, "For God's sake" and "Oh my God" appear in English subtitles.
  • Anna shows a little bit of cleavage, and in one scene we see her pregnant belly.
  • The fortune teller states that "he'll seduce you with his talent and worse," referring to Pope. As such we see him and Victoria together before his concert. He suggestively tells her, "I feel a composition coming on." She seductively replies, "So do I" and they then passionately kiss. We then hear pulsating violin music and the sounds of them having sex (as do those who pass by and then stop in front of their closed door). We continue to hear such sexual sounds (breathing, moaning, etc...) but don't see any activity.
  • Later, Pope walks in while Victoria writes and says that he has something that needs to be worked out and addressed. Although she wants to continue writing, Pope begins playing the violin. Thus, she gets up and undresses in front of him (we see her bare butt and the side of her breasts) and then walks around behind him where she licks his neck as he continues to play (as she asks, "Is this what you wanted?"). She then comes around him again where we briefly see her bare breasts and she then kisses his bare stomach. She then runs her hand down inside his pants and it's implied that they have sex. As such, we see them afterwards, lying next to one another. Thus, we see the side of his bare butt, as well as glimpses of hers and parts of her bare breast (as she lies behind him from our point of view).
  • As we hear his and Victoria's letters read to each other, we see Pope lying alone, but nude in his bed with the violin being the only thing covering his crotch. As such, he sensuously strokes the instrument's neck.
  • We briefly see Pope and a woman having sex. Both are nude and she's on his lap where we see movement and her bare breasts.
  • Victoria smokes once, while a few miscellaneous characters also smoke.
  • A man learns that his wife has died.
  • A man must deal with the death of a boy he had somewhat adopted.
  • Whether the violin really had a curse on it that caused the problems that enveloped those who possessed it.
  • The deaths that occur during the film.
  • Grave robbers (we see that some gypsies have dug up a grave).
  • The Chinese Cultural Revolution and its ban on all things foreign -- including music.
  • Nicolo smashes a violin an apprentice has made since it doesn't meet his quality requirements.
  • We see a father/guardian walking out of an audition with a young boy whom he's firmly holding/dragging by the ear.
  • Victoria briefly reads or describes passages from her novel that talk about murder.
  • Having discovered Pope having sex with another woman, Victoria threatens both with a loaded pistol. She then fires a shot that strikes the violin.
  • We hear Pope's voice-over of planning to commit suicide via drowning or poisoning, but we never learn which method he chose.
  • A violin is purposefully burned, and a woman likewise breaks many albums.
  • Communist party members kick in Xiang's door.
  • A man takes a knife and holds it to a dead woman's wrist that he then slices open to collect some blood.

  • Reviewed June 22, 1999 / Posted June 25, 1999

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