Canadian Epics of Passion: The Red Violin and Sunshine

By Yacowar, Maurice | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Canadian Epics of Passion: The Red Violin and Sunshine


Yacowar, Maurice, Queen's Quarterly


Two masterful epic films that are passionate about passion have found a noble way to be Canadian despite not seeming to be Canadian. The Red Violin and Sunshine eschew the small "our story" characteristic of the purest Canadian cinema for the sweep of an international and historical canvas. Each surveys history with a wide range of characters tied together in myriad ways. But neither film is as intimidating as it sounds; at the root of both stories is a simple desire to rediscover and restore passion and purity in a world of deceit and compromise.

THIS strategy should not be mistaken for the black sell-out days of Meatballs and Porky's, when Canadian films obsessively tried to "pass" as American. Back then, the surest way to identify a film as "Canadian" was the gratuitous shot of the American flag or a reference to "the President" in the first 90 seconds. Our red mailboxes had to be replaced by American blue so as not to alienate the "domestic" (i.e., the us) audience. At one point the blue-eyed American "star" Rabble Benson was cast as a famous Canadian aboriginal to give the "project" -- Running Brave -- commercial credibility. But in The Red Violin and Sunshine the internationalism derives from strength not insecurity, from the passion of a compelling vision, not commercial expediency. In their post-colonized position the films transcend their national particularity instead of hiding it. The telling difference is between project and passion.

The Red Violin, directed by Francois Girard from a script he wrote with Don McKellar, opens in the studio of the seventeenth-century Italian violin-maker Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi). After the credits the film shifts to an antique violin auction in present-day Montreal. That is, the violin's heroic conception and history are established before its contemporary context. Establishing historical Europe before our Montreal reminds us that we live in the context of the historic. Throughout the film the narrative returns to that hub -- the Montreal auction -- then flares out to recount the fantastic history of the instrument, each facet of which compels a different modern-day bidder to acquire it. And though each bidder's desire to possess the Red Violin is intense, their motives are of varying degrees of honour. Beneath the auction's tone of courtly, mannered civility Girard establishes the tension between the cool mechanics of business and the genuine ardour of the passionate.

The Cremona scenes recall how the violin became an object conceived in passion. In his workshop, Bussotti examines the finished violin of an apprentice, and pronounces it adequate for a courtesan or priest -- before smashing it to bits: "Put your anger into your work, my boy." For the master, a violin must be crafted with true feeling, not with the courtesan's fakery or the musical cleric's dilettantism. The open flames in the studio emblematize the genuine artist's passion. Bussotti has been labouring on his masterpiece, a perfect violin for the child in his wife's womb: "He will live for music." But when both mother and baby die Bussotti, in his mad grief, varnishes the violin with his wife's blood, which through the centuries will provide its mysterious hue and voice. In his total dedication to his beloved wife and to his craft, Bussotti (his name a fugitive echo of "besotted") is the film's most heroic character, a man of pure passion both for his art and for his family.

Compared to Bussotti, the passions of the later possessors of the Red Violin are pale -- but not without their own particular intensities. None are more ignoble in purpose than Mr Ruselsky (Ireneusz Bogajewicz), who opens the bidding in Montreal and seems destined to own the coveted instrument. A consummate grasping collector, his lust for possession of the famous violin is fuelled by pure (i.e., impure) vanity. Even when he plays the Red Violin, he fails to recognize its special character, a character that has captured the imagination of appraiser Charles Morritz (Samuel L. …

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