Shot in glorious black-and-white, The Violin tells of Don Plutarco, his son Genaro and his grandson Lucio, who live double lives. On the one hand, they are musicians and humble farmers; on the other they support the campesino guerilla movement’s armed efforts against their oppressive government. When the military seizes the village, the rebels flee to the sierra hills, forced to leave behind their stock of ammunition. While the guerillas organize a counter-attack, old Plutarco executes his own plan. He plays up his appearance as a harmless violin player and makes it back into the military-occupied village to try to recover the ammunition hidden in his cornfield. His violin playing charms the army captain, who orders Plutarco to come back daily, consequently developing a relationship in which arms and music play a tenuous game of cat-and-mouse.
After studying theater at the National Institute of the Arts, Francisco Vargas studied Communications at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, as well as Dramatic Arts at the Hugo Argüelles workshop. In 1995, he began his education in directing and cinematography at the University Center of Cinematography Studies. Conejo, his first short film, earned a solid reputation while touring the international film festival circuit. For five years, he produced radio shows that helped preserve and promote traditional Mexican music. Since 1997, he has worked as a director or director of photography on several commercials, documentaries and short films. In 2004, he made a documentary, Tierra Caliente, se mueren los que la mueven, which was an acclaimed hit in Mexico and the rest of the world. In 2006, The Violin was chosen by the Cannes Film Festival as an Official Selection—Un Certain Regard—and won Ángel Tavira the best actor award. It is Francisco Vargas’ feature-length directorial debut. Surpassing Amores Perros, The Violin has become the most internationally awarded Mexican film in history with forty-six-plus awards from festivals around the world.
The following interview (which is not for the spoiler-wary) is cobbled from personal conversation and a Q&A session while Francisco Vargas was accompanying The Violin at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival, supplemented by a follow-up email exchange with Vargas, negotiated through Film Movement. My profound thanks to Rebeca Conget for her facilitative translations.
Keyframe: Though The Violin is reminiscent of the Guerrero guerrilla movement of the 1970s, it’s intriguingly vague as to particulars. Were you purposely avoiding situating this narrative in a specific time and place?
Francisco Vargas: Basically, the film has no defined time or place. Or rather, it has it but it doesn’t have it. If it does, it’s an open-ended definition because we didn’t want people to get the idea that the film’s narrative is something that happened in the past or something limited to one particular region. When people ask me what is the time and place of this film, or what conflict is being specifically referenced, I tell them it’s very easy to define it. All you have to do is take a map, put it on a wall, point your finger, and—if your finger doesn’t fall on the sea—you will surely point to a place where this has happened either a long time ago or is happening even now as we sit here talking. What I always say is that, unfortunately, it will continue to happen. So, to answer your question, yes, there is a time and a place but it’s understood in a broad sense, not a specific one.
Keyframe: Does your film thus express an ongoing struggle taking place not only in Latin America but throughout the Global South?
Vargas: People who have studied these movements throughout Latin America have said that if you do not attack the conditions that cause people to rise in arms, then the conditions will continue to happen, as will resistance. I never get tired of saying wherever I go that governments mistakenly attack the people who resist oppressive conditions instead of attacking and resolving the conditions. I also never get tired of saying that incidents like those shown in The Violin are only the background. What I’m more concerned with is telling the story of human beings. As I said earlier, you can say it happened some years ago, it’s happening now, it happens in Mexico, it happens in some other part of Latin America, where in the world is it going to happen next?
Keyframe: Where has the film shown in Latin America?
Vargas: It’s been shown in Argentina and—when it premiered in Colombia—it had a great deal of meaning for the people there. Also in Brazil. I, myself, have not traveled to those countries but we sent Don Ángel Tavira (who plays the lead character Don Plutarco) and some of the other actors to those premieres.
Keyframe: Your black-and-white cinematography reminds me of the camera work of Gabriel Figueroa and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Can you speak to what you feel it is about the black-and-white aesthetic that expresses the soul of the Mexican people?
Vargas: The first reason we had for using black-and-white cinematography is because it doesn’t define the time and place so much. There are actually many reasons, but another very important reason is that we didn’t want to create the stereotypical representation of Mexicans as personified by colorful folkcraft. Neither did we want to create a piece of pornographic poverty as some people were doing in the 1970s, which was an aspect of commercial cinema on our continent back then. I didn’t want to be on either one side of that issue or the other. I wanted to get to something much deeper. When you’re talking about as delicate an issue as we’re presenting in The Violin, you present what is good and what is evil, but there is also a broad grey zone that has a depth and complexity that’s difficult to talk about. We wanted to stay within that grey zone and not identify with either the good or the evil. We also wanted to pay homage to an ancient tradition of Mexican aesthetics—both in the cinematography and in the oral culture of traditional music.
Keyframe: Speaking of traditional Mexican music, this film has all the trademarks of a corrido. Were you thinking of corridos at all when you wrote the script?
Vargas: I will say it flat out: This film is a corrido. There’s lots of music in the film expressed in lots of different genres; but—if there is a musical term to describe this film—it is a corrido. The musical genre of Mexican corridos, with regard to the revolution, was a way of actually communicating news about things that had happened from one place to another. It was also a way of keeping memory. But most of all it was a way of liberating the spirit of the people. This was the way that the spirit of the need for change among the people was safeguarded over the years. The film starts out with a corrido and it ends with the boy Lucio singing a corrido. In fact, the corrido that Lucio is singing is a transformation that he himself has made of the corrido at the beginning and this is how the oral tradition works.
Keyframe: I presume that it was within the five years you produced radio shows to help preserve and promote traditional Mexican music that you ultimately came to know Don Ángel Tavira? Can you speak to when you first met him and what it was about him that inspired you to—first—create a short film and then expand it into The Violin? Can you likewise speak to your usage of non-actors, including the specific casting of Ángel Tavira as Don Plutarco?
Vargas: The project of The Violin was always a single one, although I shot 30 minutes first and then the rest of the movie. Maybe the work you’re referring to is a documentary called Tierra Caliente, se mueren los que la mueven (Tierra Caliente, The Best Ones Are Passing Away), but that film has nothing to do with The Violin. This earlier film is about Don Ángel, about his music, the place he came from, and his life. Hopefully, you will get to see that someday.
The casting for The Violin was a mixture of professional actors who were not very well-known but who were very good and true non-actors. Forgive me for digressing a moment but I want to stress that this film as a project involved many people. Making a first film in any part of the world—but Mexico in particular—is very difficult. So I decided that—if this was going to be my debut—I wanted it to be the debut of many other people. For many actors who could never have a leading role in a motion picture, I wanted them to have it here. So we have a handful of professional actors who are very good but then a lot of other people who are not actors.
The case of Don Ángel is interesting, because I met him a long time after I finished this film’s script. He is not a professional actor; he’s an old violinist from the south of Mexico, a campesino, who really does have a hand missing. Once I met him and found out that he plays the violin with only one hand, I thought he was a strong and exceptional human being. He comes from a family of musicians with a tradition that dates back 150 years. And the music in his region, in the state of Guerrero, in his town, is disappearing, and there are only—apart from Don Ángel—about seven or eight old people who play. So I decided to make a documentary about the music of this region. That was the earlier film Tierra Caliente.
What happens with this sequence in ‘The Violin’ is that—although you don’t see anything—you know that what’s going on really exists, that it has happened, that it’s not fiction. Although what you’re watching is fiction, you know it’s the truth, and that’s why it affects you.
After I finished Tierra Caliente, I decided to take the script of The Violin out of the drawer and start. And because of the characteristics of this movie—the shoot had to be only four weeks, in the mountains, with very cold temperatures, with limited material, a small crew, etc.—I decided it would be good to have an actor as the protagonist, so I asked the casting director to find one. But after six months of not finding him, she came back to me and suggested looking among the old musicians that I already knew and with whom I had worked on the documentary. At that moment I said that we could stop the search and I would invite Don Ángel to work in the film, although there was a risk because of his lack of experience as an actor. And the greatest surprise for everyone was that he ended up being a great actor, since he is a born artist, all his life devoted to music, and when it was time to shoot we only had to train him and take him to the set. And apart from his great screen presence and charisma, his work is the result of—not only my own work—but the work and support he always had from the wonderful professional actors that were by his side, guiding him and supporting him. Great actors like Dagoberto Gama, Gerardo Taracena or Fermín ‘Justo’ Martínez, who worked as actors and at the same time as teachers.
In reality, The Violin was born out of a whole life process, nurtured by lucky encounters with magical people, like my two great-grandmothers. One who died at age 115, and inspired the image of the old storyteller, and the other one, a tough, hardened woman who rode horses, smoked cigars and drank alcohol; all this in the middle of the 19th century. That inspired the image of Don Plutarco, tough and tireless. Both these people were very strong in my life, and in the dramatic structure of this film; but also the love for music and Mexican traditions. And all within the context of the reality that’s lived, on a daily basis, by millions of Mexicans and Latin Americans for countless decades.
Keyframe: Can you speak to how you’ve structured the narrative of The Violin? The film employs suspense and build-up but the result of this tension is shown straight off at the beginning of the film.
Vargas: The structure of this film is the simplest possible. One of the purposes of this film was to be an economical production. I wanted it to be this way. If I had a hundred million dollars, I wouldn’t have used them. This film had to be like this. Its narrative was structured dramatically in the most classic—in fact the most Greek way—it could be. The story is told without any special effects or any tricks in editing. There isn’t even so much as a dissolve in the film. We wanted to reduce the film to the very essence of the story. We wanted to demonstrate that what we need the most is to tell stories and we need to hear stories. To tell and hear stories, you don’t need millions of dollars. The film is, in essence, reduced to a situation of an old man sitting around a fire telling a story to his family. That’s where you have culture and memory. This was how my grandmothers told stories to me and that’s how I wanted to tell a story through my film.
Keyframe: Could you speak to your decision to begin your story so violently? Variety‘s Justin Chang characterized this brutal opening scene as ‘arguably exploitative’ and Manohla Dargis from The New York Times has complained: ‘It’s a wretched opener in part because Mr. Vargas, who makes his feature debut with this film, doesn’t understand that he needs to put his camera, and not just his sympathies, on the side of the victims.’ Film Journey‘s Doug Cummings, however, intuits ‘the scenes not only serve to establish the very real dangers the peasants and guerillas face, but also contribute to an unpredictable tone that increases the narrative suspense; in a film where anything can happen, the sense of looming, imminent danger is much more palpable.’ While Film-Forward‘s Nora Lee Mandel recognizes the scene as ‘distressingly timeless.’ What motivated you to commence with torture and rape?
Vargas: It’s interesting that each person can own or interpret a scene, or an element of a film, based on his or her own experiences and in different ways. And I think that at the end of the day that’s what’s so wonderful about cinema.
The critics in some countries have said that The Violin could not be the same movie without that sequence, that [it’s] indispensable. And in other places they said they didn’t think it necessary.
The first thing I could say is that it is not an explicitly violent scene. One never actually sees what’s happening, one only imagines it, or knows, but never really sees it. During the whole film you never see blood, bullets, confrontations or gore or anything. The narrative rule always was absence as the absolute presence. And I think that the intention works; that’s why some people feel that scene is so tough, or feel a silent violence during the entire film; but it’s not visible.
It’s paradoxical, because there are so many images one sees in movies or TV that are really violently coarse and grotesque; however, we are used to them and don’t complain. What happens with this sequence in The Violin is that—although you don’t see anything—you know that what’s going on really exists, that it has happened, that it’s not fiction. Although what you’re watching is fiction, you know it’s the truth, and that’s why it affects you. And it’s even more of a paradox because this sequence is merely a still camera shooting the floor, and you can’t see anything. The reasons why what’s going on is taking place are unknown; therefore, there aren’t good guys and bad guys, nor sympathy for the victims or hatred towards bad guys.
On the other hand, it does not portray even a hundredth of the brutality that so many people have really suffered in many places. But I decided to shoot it this way, without showing, without making it obvious; absent in some ways, but violent because of all those things that people already know and associate it with. And, above all, because from the beginning it gives a tone to the whole story; a tone in which one feels the latent and constant danger, like it’s lived in reality by millions of people that are not in a film or an X-box game. The sequence is for those who already know (so that they don’t forget) and for those who were not aware of the atrocities and excesses of the military (so that they find out). And lastly, because it permits me to feel in my heart, so that then I take a position in life in which it is clear to me that the violation of human rights is terrible, and it can happen at any moment, and we should never allow it, under any shape or form, ever.
Keyframe: I share that prayer. How do you plan to follow up on such a stunningly beautiful debut feature? Will we see another film soon?
Vargas: I am finishing the promotion for The Violin, but I’m already working on two other stories. One of them is in the final writing process, and I hope to be able to finish it soon so that I can shoot it next year.
At the same time I continue to produce documentaries. Right now I’m producing one in Southeast Mexico. And a few months ago we co-produced a fiction short that was shot in Mexico with a French company.
Keyframe: Who, among Mexican directors, do you admire? Which particular Mexican films do you admire? Earlier, you spoke against the ‘pornographic poverty’ all too often represented in Mexican film; can you state a specific example of what you did not want in The Violin?
Vargas: There are many Mexican directors that I admire. In each decade, despite the ups and downs of our cinema, there have been important directors and films, and each one of them has nourished my work and my life and—although sometimes we may forget—they are the base of our current cinema. To mention certain names would mean I’d be leaving out many others, and I wouldn’t think it fair, since in Mexico we have a very rich and important artistic and cinematographic tradition that cannot be reduced to a few names.
What I was referring to with the ‘pornographic poverty’ comment is a tendency that took place not only in Mexico, but in the cinema of many countries, in which they would show the most terrible and pathetic aspects of their respective societies, but in a coarse, simplistic and morbid manner, with the only aim of selling the image based on pity and its sensationalist impact. And it’s a type of cinema that in certain times was exported and sold well, and that sometimes re-emerges; but it’s not something I’m interested in ever making.
And although it is true that in Mexico we live and see terrible things, it doesn’t interest me to talk about it to just show for show, and portray grotesquely the most despicable aspects of our society. What interests me primarily is to tell stories, because that’s what a film director is: a storyteller. It interests me to tell stories that make us feel and dream, that move us and allow our imagination and fantasies to fly, but all this based on stories of an immediate reality, stories that touch on and talk about the very difficult context in which we live.
The word that rules in The Violin is dignity, not pity towards poverty. Dignity and liberty are values which millions of Mexicans both aspire to and live with, although those millions also live in poverty.