Francisco Vargas blends beauty and brutality so effectively in The Violin that it becomes impossible to separate them. What's portrayed is disturbing and haunting, yet it's shot with such an exquisite use of light and shadow that you can't turn away. Fusing these two extremes, Mexican writer-director Vargas creates an indelible black-and-white vision of a dirty little war, and shows how occupation and oppression can lead to generations of resistance.

The Violin isn't shy about its ability to shock: It opens with a scene of huddled villagers forced to watch torture and rape. Vargas then shifts focus to a family of street musicians going to perform in a nearby town, where their every action is affected by the presence of the military, men with guns maintaining order. (Even though it's filmed in Mexico, it could take place anywhere in Latin America.)

So it's no surprise that guitarist Genaro Hidalgo (Gerardo Taracena) is distracted enough to be gently scolded by his father, violinist Don Plutarco, about his playing. Genaro is more focused on securing weapons for his guerrilla group and keeping an eye on his rambunctious son Lucio. In a few quick scenes, Vargas demonstrates the simple gestures used by the underground to communicate, and how even the most seemingly innocuous citizens can play a role.

When the Hidalgos return home, they find their village has been taken over by the army, and Genaro's wife and daughter are missing. Don Plutarco (Don Angel Tavira) and Lucio (Mario Garibaldi) head toward the mountains with survivors of the raid, exiles whose anger has long ago been replaced by resignation. Genaro goes to view the damage, and in a heart-pounding chase sequence, is pursued by determined soldiers, his only weapon a deep knowledge of the landscape.

It's here that Vargas shifts into the realm of psychological warfare. Don Plutarco decides to enter the village and smuggle out ammunition, and uses his violin to disarm the Captain (Dagoberto Gama), a lover of the traditional songs played with passion by the frail yet resourceful musician, who ties the bow to his bandaged right hand with a ribbon.

A Hollywood ending might find music soothing the savage beast, but Vargas is a realist, if not a fatalist. With stunning imagery that recalls the photographs of Sebastião Salgado, The Violin becomes an intimate portrait of conflict on the ground level, where terra firma can suddenly shift like sand.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 7-8, and at 4 & 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 9. Call 313-833-3237 for info.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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