Like a blending of great symphony and great cinema, "The Red Violin" is a magnum opus of musical-visual composition for French-Canadian director Francois Girard ("Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould").
The biography of a masterpiece musical instrument and its globetrotting passage through centuries of owners, this is a film overflowing with fervent movements of pathos, seductive tempos of passion, tragic refrains of sorrow and a riveting, recurring chorus that ties every measure beautifully together.
The resourcefully framed story of a violin set adrift in time begins in modern Montreal where the tattered yet still magnificent instrument is being sold at auction, with emotional bids ardently exchanged by several interested parties.
We don't yet know who any of them are, but as the movie visits several centuries past, the fully realized histories of several owners fill in small details of the modern story. Each passage leads back to the auction through an expert appraiser (Samuel L. Jackson in a penetrating departure performance) who is trying to substantiate his suspicion that this violin -- which he discovered amongst a shipment of Western instruments discarded by the Chinese government -- is in fact the legendary Red Violin created by a 17th Century master named Nicolo Bussotti.
The film's first vignette begins with Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi), a ruthlessly demanding craftsman who creates the near-flawless fiddle for his unborn son. But when the baby and his beautiful wife die in childbirth, he becomes obsessed with imbuing the instrument with her spirit so that she may live on in some way.
Girard -- who co-wrote the script with Don McKellar, his "Glen Gould" collaborator -- then follows the violin to an orphanage, where it is passed down for from child to child until it becomes inseparable from a 7-year-old prodigy, played with fantastic intensity by Christoph Koncz, a young musical marvel of the real-life variety.
This passage is clearly the Red Violin's own childhood and after it is carried off by gypsies in an inventive montage of generations of nomadic musicians, it becomes the property of Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng), a rakish, aristocratic English virtuoso whose playing becomes a thing of unmistakably sensual fervency upon his acquisition of the instrument.
Pope's lustful but doomed affair with a beautiful, changeable novelist (Greta Scacchi) represents the violin's puberty and sexual awakening, while the third parable journeys with the violin to China, where it languishes unnoticed for decades in a pawn shop until it is purchased for young Xiang Pei (Sylvia Chang), who in her Cultural Revolution-era adulthood will have to choose between it and her loyalty to the ethnocentric Communist party.
Girard skimps nowhere in bringing the Red Violin to life through those whose lives are affected by its enigmatic perfection. Sumptuous visual cues and a potent soundtrack -- centering around soloist Joshua Bell lending voice to the violin -- compliment the inventively crafted story and the absorbingly nuanced -- if brief -- performances in each movement of this cinematic concerto.
With his audience rapt, the director concludes with coda that returns to the auction, finally shown in its entirety as Jackson's now spellbound appraiser and characters with ties to each historical vignette make their plays for the Red Violin.
Girard spent five years researching, writing and filming this mesmerizing but understated epic, and every moment of his work paid off. "The Red Violin" is magic.