The first time I watched The Red Violin, I thought that its story was intensely ominous, and laced with menacing superstition. But lately, I’ve begun to believe that it is also achingly beautiful, and as searing a testament to the importance of an instrument as ever there was.
The Red Violin tells the story of a small violin, crafted and painted red by Niccolò Bussotti in the late seventeenth century. Widely considered Bussotti’s masterpiece, stories of the violin circulated for hundreds of years, as the instrument passed hands from player to player. By the late 1990s, which is when the last part of this film is set, many people in the world of classical music know that the violin exists, but have no idea where it is. The film traces the heretofore untold story of the violin– where it traveled, what stories unfolded around it, and ultimately, why and how it is painted red.
The story begins in 1681, in Cremona, a small city in northern Italy, situated on the banks of the Po River. Cremona was home to some of Europe’s most renowned luthiers (makers and repairers of stringed instruments), including Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri. In the film, Niccolò Bussotti, the maker of the Red Violin, also lives here. As the film commences, he is in the process of making his capolavoro– his masterpiece. Meanwhile, his soft-spoken wife, Anna, is pregnant and anxious about the future. She seeks counsel from Cesca, one of her servants, who makes a long and rather confusing prediction, a story that far better resembles the life of an instrument than a human being.
Anna dies in childbirth, and broken by grief, Niccolò stops working. His last instrument, his masterpiece, the Red Violin, is given to a monastery in Austria, where it remains for one hundred years. It then travels to Vienna, the steady companion of a young orphan with exceptional talent. The boy loves the instrument almost as he would love a mother he does not have. He sleeps with her next to him, talks to her, and needs her. When a terrifying prince threatens to take the violin away from him, he dies from heart failure.
After the boy’s death, the violin is stolen by a band of gypsies, who over the course of several generations, travel from Austria to the shores of England, and eventually to Oxford. There, the violin is bought by a selfish, libidinous violinist who history will call “England’s only virtuoso” but whom Cesca refers to as “the Devil.” His possession of the violin is violent but short-lived. After he takes his own life, the violin travels to China with an opium trader.
Now in Shanghai in the 1930s, the violin is welcomed with open arms by a young woman with a thriving musical career. She passes the violin on to her daughter, who stays in Shanghai as an adult but nevertheless finds herself in an utterly different world: at the cusp of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution. Forced to surrender her mother’s beloved instrument or face dire consequences, she gives the violin to a music teacher– who, unbeknownst to the authorities, has vowed to safeguard dozens of violins in his attic.
Thirty years pass, and the music teacher dies. By now the political climate in China has changed, and so when this reservoir of instruments is discovered, they are transferred to an auction house in Montreal, to be bought by those who can afford them. The film ends when an appraiser who has been, quite literally, in love with the story of the Red Violin for years, steals the instrument from under the eyes of a host of people who are desperate to acquire it. Having discovered that the red varnish on the violin contained DNA of Anna Bussotti, the appraiser feels left with no choice. He switches the real violin with a copy, and takes it home to his wife and young daughter.
Most people see this as the story of a cursed violin, and with legitimate cause, given all of the death and sadness in this film. Yet lately I have started to wonder if the story is not at all about a sinister instrument and the ill-fated people who play it, but rather about the immortality of a kind-hearted woman who was not able to live herself. Yes, the film is filled with sorrow. But it is also filled with numerous moments when the violin gives comfort and joy to the people around it– or rather, the people around her.
Without her, the young boy from the monastery would have died of his heart condition long before. Without her, the gypsies would not have had the joy required to live out their wandering, itinerant destinies. Without her, the musician in Oxford would have offered nothing whatsoever to the world. Without her, the daughter of the violinist in China would not have had reason to question the lines drawn out around her. Without her, the appraiser in Montreal would have lived out his career gruffly, never humbled or awed by the way an instrument can carry so much humanity.
Niccolò Bussotti painted the violin as he did so that he could give the woman he adored a life beyond death. And I wonder if in some ways, that is what this story is about, too. What lives on, beyond the starts and finishes of historical eras, geographic borders, and the journeys of individual human beings? What would happen if we asked questions about immortality in this way, and celebrated what endures beyond us before it is too late? What if The Red Violin were to bring not only tears, but also a wonder at how a single instrument can survive the turmoil of the stories it passes through? What elements of the world around us– especially in nature– have quietly, gracefully done the very same thing?