The explicit and brutal first five minutes of this film are enough to make sure the viewer does not mistake it for a gentle whimsical tale of wily Mexican peasants outwitting rich landowners. For this is a story that has at its heart the threat and reality of violent repression by the Mexican state.
It is filmed in gritty black and white, giving the impression that you are watching vintage documentary footage. The focus is on the villagers who have been forced from their homes by the military and who refuse to give up the names and whereabouts of the local guerrillas.
Don Plutarco is a one-handed violinist playing for a few coins with his son and grandson. He is played by first time actor – at 83 – Don Angel Tavira, who is himself from a long line of important traditional musicians in Mexico.
When Plutarco’s daughter in law is taken by the army, he hands over his whole harvest in return for a mule to help look for her. While his son joins the guerrillas he rides his mule right into the military camp now set up in the village and, by feigning the simplicity of a poor old man who just wants to check his crops, he wins the confidence of the commander. After he has heard the old man play, he insists he is taught to play the violin himself.
The music reaches somewhere in the soul of even this cruel soldier while Plutarco takes his chance and day after day calmly smuggles out ammunition under the commander’s nose in his violin case.
After the first frantic five minutes El Violin is a slow paced and beautiful film. The camera lingers on the faces of the villagers sheltering together on the bleak mountainside, who despite the bitterness of the struggle do not lose their humanity.
This moving portrayal of people who have so little, fighting against those who have so much, brings to mind the 1953 film Salt of the Earth. It does not have the depth of that classic, and lacks any moments of light, but nevertheless it is a powerful attempt to put across the courage that even just surviving needs in such harsh circumstances.
At the end you are haunted by the sight of the young grandson with his guitar – the poor and dispossessed have not been crushed. Despite everything, future generations will take up their struggle.
When we opposed the National Front
An imagined revolt in Port Talbot