Always, no matter what the topic, old memories and bits of recollection seem to connect with whatever I come across and drift around me. I’ve just watched a film on television, The Red Violin, and it is influenced by a softly lit rainy afternoon while sitting on a covered porch in Germany many years ago.
A wet world. Sounds of trickles. The kind of rainy day that is pretty to look at.
The connection between this movie and the memory is known to me, of course.
I had been reading a Victorian ghost story on that porch, something about a lost Stradivarius being discovered by a wealthy young heir who then became secretive and obsessed with a particular piece of music that had the ability, when played, to call up the ghost of the violin’s previous owner. I had brought a radio outside and tuned it to a classical station. The music sank me deeply into the novel and wedded the two mediums. Pages after pages, and I remember noticing that night had descended with lights reflected on the wet grass of the lawn, everything dappled with drops of rain. I continued reading about the Victorian heir and his ghost roaming from England to Italy, the story involving family dramas, lordly depravity, and romantic tragedies.
Those violins, those old wooden instruments, so brilliantly crafted centuries ago, so perfect that nobody with all the technology of our electronic world, can hope to match them.
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 legendary perfect violin, known for its rich red color, from its maker in 17th century Italy to an auction room in modern Montreal. Samuel L. Jackson plays an expert of vintage musical instruments, who first notices the famous red violin and understands its mystery. But like many passionate connoisseurs, he lacks the wealth to match his tastes. Nevertheless, he is determined to protect it.
The violin is crafted in 1681 by Italian Nicolo Bussotti for his unborn son. It will be the first child for the craftsman and his wife, who are both middle-aged. Anna fears her age may complicate her pregnancy and seeks out a tarot reading. She picks a card which promises her a long life. Nicolo considers the newly fashioned violin as his masterpiece, with the hope that their child will become a musician. He is about to varnish the instrument when he learns that his wife and unborn son have died in childbirth.
After Anna’s death, the violin drifts into the hands of an order of monks and a century later, donated to an orphanage in Austria. There, it is played by a young child prodigy with the purity of an angel. A nobleman hears the boy play and adopts him. The child sleeps with his violin. He is scheduled to perform for the monarchy, but the stress and a hidden heart defect cause the boy to collapse dead on stage. The violin is buried with the child.
The violin is later stolen by grave robbers traveling in a gypsy procession, where it is handed down and played by several generations of gypsies, spanning another century before being taken to England. The gypsies set up camp in the woods behind the manor of a noted composer. He follows the sound of the violin and finds it in the hands of a young woman. Frederick Pope wants the violin and he makes the gypsies a deal. He will offer them sanctuary on his property in exchange for the instrument. But Frederick requires carnal inspiration and incorporates the violin into his lovemaking. When his fiancee arrives to find him in bed with his fleshy muse, the gypsy violinist girl, she shoots the violin. Frederick commits suicide in shame.
The violin ends up in the hands of Frederick’s Chinese servant who takes it back to Shanghai where he sells it to an antiques dealer. The violin hangs in the window for decades until it is purchased by a music teacher and repaired. The Chinese communist party comes to power during the Cultural Revolution and the violin becomes a symbol of Western decadence and deemed unsuitable to the new ideology. The violin is taken away from the music teacher and tossed into a bonfire. Risking her own life, a nearby woman pulls the violin from the flames and disappears into the night.
Years later, another young Chinese woman is attempting to hide the instrument when she is discovered by her boyfriend, the son of a local party leader. She explains that the violin had been a gift from her late mother who had once been a musician before the revolution. She plays it for him and extracts a promise that he will not tell anyone about its existence. After he leaves, she realizes her secret is in clumsy hands. When officials arrive to arrest her, they find her gone. Only a photograph of her mother, the woman who had rescued the violin from the fire, remains.
The young woman later shows up at the door of her boyfriend. She pleads for him to keep the violin safe. Believing this to be a trick that would get him arrested or shot, he refuses, until she ultimately threatens to destroy the instrument in front of him. He relents and vows to keep it hidden. She then turns herself in to the authorities for prosecution.
The violin reaches modern times. Acting on complaints from a neighbor, the police discover the boyfriend, now old and quite dead, in his house. A hidden cache is also uncovered. In shame of having once reported the woman he loved, an offense that lead to her execution, the old man had devoted his life to providing sanctuary for forbidden musical instruments. The government of China, now far removed from the rules of the Cultural Revolution, ships these items to Montreal where they can be appraised and sold at auction.
Samuel L. Jackson’s character arrives in Montreal as an appraiser for the violins. Almost immediately he notices the red violin. To verify this, he has some varnish samples sent to the lab at the University. The tests confirm it, and now convinced that this is the legendary Last Violin of Nicolo Bussotti, he comes up with an idea. Frederick Pope had commissioned a copy of the original before his death, and Jackson purchases it from a private collection in London which he then uses to swap with The Red Violin. The copy is sold at auction for millions while Jackson delivers the real thing to his own daughter at home, whom he hopes will someday become a musician.
Only an expert and true lover of music, not a collector, would know the secret mystery of the violin’s famous red color.
Distraught at the death of his wife, Nicolo Bussotti carries her body back to his shop, where he lovingly drains and mixes her blood into the varnish. He then applies it with a brush made from her hair to the violin he had created for their child.
The Red Violin does not really follow a person or even an instrument. It follows an idea. An idea that the human race, in all times and all places, are powerfully moved, or threatened, by the possibility that with our hands and minds we can create something that is perfect.
Perfect, like love is perfect.