The Red Violin tells the story of a violin from its creation in 1600s Italy to a present day auction in Montreal. Violin maker Nicolo Bussoti creates a violin that is his masterpiece, intending for it to be used by the son with whom his wife his pregnant. His wife asks one of the family servants to tell her future through tarot cards. Each of the cards and its prediction, which are revealed slowly throughout the movie, correspond to different parts of the violin’s life. When both the wife and the son die in childbirth, Bussoti stains the violin a deep red color and donates it to an Austrian monastery orphanage. Over a century later, the orphanage has a child that shows great musical promise who uses the red violin. The child is sent to study with a patron of the orphanage in Vienna, but dies within a month of heart failure and is buried with the violin. Roving gypsies dig up the violin and over many generations it makes its way to England where it comes to Frederick Pope, a virtuoso violin player. Pope eventually commits suicide and the violin makes its way to China, where it causes difficulty for its owner during the cultural revolution. In present day, the red violin is part of a large shipment of violins that the Chinese are having a Montreal company auction off. The day of the auction is visited throughout the film, as there are bidders from the auction connected to each point in the violin’s history (a group of monks, a Pope scholar, etc). The scholar who discovered that the violin to be auctioned is the lost red violin of history sneaks into the back during the auction and swaps the instrument with a replica, and it is implied that he will give the real red violin to his child.
The Red Violin is historical fiction in that it takes place in the past, but it many ways it is not a typical historical fiction. The viewer is not told the location and year of each scene, but must infer it from the details. None of the characters or events were real, though some speculate that Bussoti and the violin are based on Stradivarius and one of his creations. Some historical details are provided, but the focus is on the violin, the characters, and the drama rather than the details. Rather than focusing on a person/event/place, the movie follows the violin through multiple places and times. The movie was on the slower and longer side. The characters are explored more as individuals than the product of their times.
I really enjoyed this movie. I thought that it was well made and had great storytelling, if not the most believable story line. The slowly revealed tarot cards and frequent flash forward to the auction made great frames for the story. The only thing that annoyed me, surprisingly, was the music. We did not get to hear any of the musicians playing well-known, recognizable violin solo pieces, and the soundtrack composer often did a poor job of matching the tone of the music to the tone of the scene.
Fans of historical fiction would probably enjoy this film. Even though the historical details are limited, there is a strong feeling of place created in each setting. Fans of mysteries may enjoy it as well, as there is a heavy feeling of mystery about the violin as its origin and history are slowly revealed over the course of the film. Fans of general drama films would enjoy this as well.