This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
There is a kind of ideal beauty that reduces us all to yearning for perfection. "The Red Violin'' is about that yearning. It traces the story of a violin ("the single most perfect acoustical machine I've ever seen,'' says a restorer) from its maker in 17th century Italy to an auction room in modern Montreal. The violin passes from the rich to the poor, from Italy to Poland to England to China to Canada. It is shot, buried, almost burned and stolen more than once. It produces music so beautiful that it makes you want to cry.
The film is heedlessly ambitious. In a time of timid projects and easy formulas, "The Red Violin'' has the kind of sweep and vision that we identify with elegant features from decades ago--films that followed a story thread from one character to another, such as "Tales of Manhattan'' or "La Ronde.'' There really is a little something here for everyone: music and culture, politics and passion, crime and intrigue, history and even the backstage intrigue of the auction business. Not many films can encompass a British aristocrat who likes to play the violin while he is having sex and a Chinese woman who risks her life to protect a violin from the martinets of the Cultural Revolution.
The violin is crafted in Cremona, Italy, in 1681--made by the craftsman Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) for his unborn son. But his wife, Anna (Irene Grazioli), dies in childbirth after hearing a series of prophecies from a village crone who reads the tarot deck. The cards provide a structure for flash-forwards to the future adventures of the violin, and at the same time there is a flashback structure, as bidders arrive at the auction house in Montreal and we learn why they desire the instrument.
The film is easy to follow, and yet reveals its secrets slyly. The story of the violin is a series of stories involving the people who own it over a period of 300 years. Then there is another story, hinted at, slowly revealing itself, involving an expert evaluator of instruments (Samuel L. Jackson). He is the person who proves that this is indeed Bussotti's famous red violin and solves the mystery of its color. He is also perhaps the person best equipped to appreciate how rare and wonderful the instrument is--but, like many passionate connoisseurs, he lacks the wealth to match his tastes. His plans for the instruments supply a suspenseful ending to a movie that has already given us just about everything else.