The Red Violin

The Red Violin (1999)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Greta Scacchi, Sylvia Chang
Extras: Theatrical Trailer, Production Notes

Imagine you have a biographic movie, in which not a person is the center of attention, but an object. This intriguing idea is the concept behind "The Red Violin", in which a famous instrument becomes the pivot of an entire biopic, following the 300 years life span of an handmade Italian violin in an episodic approach that is both beautiful, and intriguing. Although the idea itself is not new, it has been used in "Tales of Manhattan" to follow a coat, and "The Yellow Rolls-Royce" that follows a car, it is a rarely seen device that allows the film to travel time and space, almost without limitations. As such this storytelling device is used perfectly in "The Red Violin", as we witness the instrument travel from one hand into another, transcending cultures and social ranks, creating an increasingly dramatic arch.

We enter the film as a violin is offered at an auction house in modern day Montreal and we start the travel to learn about the life of this legendary musical instrument that is famous for its unusual reddish hue. It all starts in Cremona, Italy, in 1681 where instrument builder Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) crafts the perfect violin in anticipation of his unborn son. He dreams up a career in music for his child, and is hit hard when his wife and the infant die in childbirth. The violin is all that is left of his life, and he painfully finishes the instrument after their death. It should be the last violin he ever built. Before her death, his wife had heard a series of prophecies from a Tarot reader, and each one of these prophecies is told as an episode, unveiling more of the mystery shrouding the Red Violin.

After Bussoti’s death, the violin is donated to monks of a Tyrolian orphanage, where it is handed down through generations for 100 years from one child to another, until infant prodigy Kaspar Weis (Christoph Koncz) lays his hands on it and reveals his passion and talents during the 18th century. The musician Poussin (Jean-Luc Bideau) and his wife adopt the child after listening to the revelatory play and Poussin teaches the boy virtuous mastery of the instrument over the next years.

After this episode the film flashes forward to the auction again, where we are introduced to a bidder on the violin, before the next episode shines light on another part of the history of the instrument. Gypsies are now in possession of the instrument during the 19th century, when rich virtuoso Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng) takes possession of the instrument and falls in love with its remarkable voice. Using and abusing it for months, it seems as if the violin has cast a spell on the excessive artist.

Once again we are introduced to another bidder on the instrument during the Montreal auction, before the film shows us how the violin travels to Red China. There it goes through numerous hands during the Cultural Revolution, where it is constantly hidden from the eyes of the Communists. People are not allowed to own or enjoy Western music and it breaks their heart. Finally in the present day, it ends up on the table of appraiser of rare antique instruments, Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson). He is convinced he found an authentic, long-lost masterpiece and in a laborious process he finds out the true origins of the instrument. It turns out to be the most perfect violin ever built and after further investigation, Morritz also uncovers the secret of its unique varnish. It leads him to understand the violin’s true value – one that cannot be measured in money – and he himself falls in love with the instrument. Entirely out of his price range however, there is no way for him afford the priceless instrument, and Morritz is torn between keeping his findings secret and telling the world.

The narrative structure of the film perfectly paces the movie, gradually unveiling more and more of the secrets and passions that have shaped this instrument over the generations. It is a life story that is even more dramatic than that of a single individual, as it spans hundreds of years and many different cultures. The film is beautifully photographed and directed, creating an atmosphere that is a creating as much mystique as the instrument itself. Gradually travelling forward in time to the present day, the veil of secrecy is slowly lifted, until viewers fully understand and appreciate the incredible value of the Red Violin.

Universal Home Video presents this remarkable film in a stunning <$PS,widescreen> version on this disc. The <$16x9,anamorphic>ally enhanced transfer is very clean and beautifully rich in color, with a great level of detail and great shadow delineation. From the deep solid blacks of the darkest shadows, to the brightest highlights, this transfer always maintains the warm look of the original film. No discoloration, over-saturation or other problems are evident. The film is always sharply defined but does not exhibit any signs of edge-enhancement, and compression artifacts, such as <$pixelation,pixelation> are also not visible in this superb presentation.

For the first time, Universal Home Video releases a title that contains a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track and a <$DTS,DTS> audio track on the same disc – although more will follow. Since much of the film’s atmosphere is defined by the reproduction of the great string and violin recordings, the soundtracks are as important, as the film’s images. Both soundtracks contain a very lively, breathing atmosphere with a very natural sounding reproduction of the instruments. Surrounds are hardly used for effect’s purposes, but to embellish the aural experience with subtle early reflections falling in from the rear, to give a great ambient, spatial impression of the recordings, and both audio track succeed perfectly at doing so. Although the resolution of the DTS track seems better in a few selected instances, the differences are not nearly as noticeable as one would expect. The only notable difference can be found in reproduction of the low-level ambience where the DTS track appears to be slightly more detailed in its reproduction.

Due to the storage limitations imposed by having a Dolby Digital and a DTS soundtrack on the same disc, understandably "The Red Violin" does not contain many extras. It only contains advertising for the film’s soundtrack, extensive production notes, cast & crew biographies and the film’s theatrical trailer,

"The Red Violin" is a great and thoughtful movie that is nonetheless very accessible. It is easy to forget that a violin can easily outlive generations of human lives, and the thought of the film to follow its trail over the course of 300 years is very provoking. The structure in which the film presents itself adds greatly to the movie’s experience, as it slowly, stylishly and secretively involves the viewer and introduces him to the heritage of this very unique and personal instrument. For viewers with a passion for music and instruments, this movie is a remarkably mesmerizing release, and the great presentation Universal is giving it here on this DVD with a great video transfer and hauntingly beautiful soundtracks, makes this DVD an invaluable addition to everyone’s collection.