"Cinque carte" -- five tarot cards servant Cesca (Anita Laurenzi) makes her mistress Anna Busotti (Irene Grazioli) draw in 17th century Cremona when Anna, wife of the legendary violin maker Niccolò Busotti (Carlo Cecchi), asks her servant to tell her and her unborn child's future. And those five cards, along with an auction in 20th century Montreal, provide the framework for the tale that is about to unfold: The Moon -- a long life, full and rich, and a long voyage. But there is a curse over her, Cesca tells her mistress as she turns the second card; there is danger to all who are under her thrall, and there will be many ... indeed, the Hanged Man is a powerful card! Then there will be a time of lust and energy, her Lazarus soul will travel across mountains, oceans and time, and she will meet a handsome and intelligent man who will seduce her with his talents "and worse" -- in short, the Devil. The fourth card Anna has drawn is Justice: There will be a big trial before a powerful magistrate, Cesca tells her; she will be found guilty ... "beware the heat of the fire!" And indeed, the last card that Anna turns, much to her alarm, is Death -- but the card is upside down and Cesca tells her not to worry because at this point this might be good news: She will be carried by the air and furious wind, but then her voyage will come to an end, "one way or another." There is "trouble" in this, Cesca says, "but you are strong now, like a tree in a forest." She will also not be alone; the servant sees a crowd of faces ... friends, family, enemies, lovers and a lot of admirers fighting to win her hand (lots of money, too) -- and ultimately, a rebirth.
Each card symbolizes one of the stories told about the travels through time and space made by the Red Violin, Niccolò Busotti's last masterpiece, over the course of the centuries. And each of the violin's owners we meet symbolizes a stage of life: birth, childhood, coming of age, political awakening and maturity. In that, it is not so much the violin's voyage that links the five vignettes dealing with its owners' lives, such as Glenn Gould's life provided the links between the individual parts of writer-director Francois Girard's first film, "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould." Rather, the humans' stories provide snapshots of various stages of the instrument's existence, brought to life by John Corigliano's magnificent and Oscar-winning score and Joshua Bell's virtuoso performance -- and of course, it is also obvious throughout that a link exists between Anna Busotti and the violin created by her husband.
"The Red Violin" is feast for the eyes and ears -- luscious and true to detail in its costume design and cinematography, it not only faithfully uses the original languages of its various locations but also actors who are native speakers (to the point of having Suisse-born actor Jean Luc Bideau portray the French teacher of Austrian wunderkind Kaspar Weiss [Christopher Koncz], thus choosing an actor who is on the one hand fluent in German but on the other hand speaks it with a "genuine" French accent ... and although I don't speak any Chinese/Mandarin, I wouldn't be surprised if the scenes taking place in China were linguistically as faithful to their location as those set in Vienna and elsewhere).
So why only four stars, not five? Because the movie's plot lines fall somewhat short of its visual and acoustic splendor. Granted, there was only limited possibility to develop meaningful stories for each of the vignettes. But given the highly symbolic nature of the movie's five parts, too many gaping holes remain. Although we know the violin's story doesn't end with Kaspar, for example, we can only guess as to how it falls into the hands of gypsies. And the following sequence, involving British composer and virtuoso Frederick Pope and his mistress Victoria Byrd, has rightfully been criticized for the shallow waters it treads: Even if you don't have a whole movie to develop the relationship between a sensual, gifted and somewhat eccentric composer and his novelist lover (such as 1991's magnificent and in North America sadly overlooked "Impromptu"), and even if Greta Scacchi's Victoria is far from being another George Sand, her talent seems ... well, maybe not wasted, but reduced to another "blonde bombshell" role unworthy of her Old Vic training. And don't even get me started on the final scene in Montreal and the "conflict" faced by violin appraiser Charles Morritz ... (although Samuel L. Jackson, at least, gives a finely tuned and sensitive performance which almost manages to smooth out the edges of the script's sometimes scratchy composition.)
But this movie's real star and ultimately, its saving grace, is the Red Violin itself -- not the six models physically representing the instrument throughout the film of course, but the personality it gains through Corigliano's score and its uniquely beautiful interpretation by Bell, and the idea the violin stands for; that of music's everlasting magic. For bringing this idea to life alone, the movie is well worth seeing.