This term I’m teaching a class on the history of modern China, and in looking for a movie clip, both accurate and compelling, to show my class depicting the Cultural Revolution, I thought of a movie I’d seen and loved a long time ago but hadn’t watched in a while. French-Canadian director Francois Girard’s The Red Violin, made in 1998, always struck me as a beautiful and ambitious film, but re-watching it recently I came to the conclusion that it’s nothing less than a masterpiece of cinema. Ironically I came to this conclusion by contrasting it with a much lesser (but perhaps equally ambitious) film, the Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas from 2012. Though they’re very different films about totally different subjects, The Red Violin is the kind of sweeping multi-layered epic that Cloud Atlas tried (and failed) to be. I have no hesitation describing Girard’s film as one of the best movies of the 1990s, which makes it all the more baffling why it’s been so overlooked.

The Red Violin is a collection of several different stories, taking place in various times and with disparate characters who for the most part never meet. But what the film is really “about” is the title object, an acoustically perfect violin built by a master craftsman, Niccolo Busotti (Carlo Cecchi), in Italy in 1681. His wife (Irene Grazioli) is pregnant. She asks one of her servants, an old woman, to read her fortune via tarot cards. The fortune teller thinks she’s describing the life of the violin maker’s wife, but the audience soon realizes the story she tells is that of the red violin. The violin comes to be possessed by several people across time and the world: a child prodigy (Christoph Koncz) in frail health in Austria in the late 1700s; an arrogant but passionate musician (Jason Flemyng) in Victorian England; and a Communist Party cadre (Sylvia Chang) in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution of 1966. Eventually the violin surfaces at an auction in Montreal in 1997, where violin expert Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) realizes it’s one of a kind and priceless. Representatives of everyone who once owned the instrument converge at the auction to try to buy it, resulting in a tense showdown that will determine the violin’s future. Only a portion of the film is in English. Its various segments have major dialogue in five languages: Italian, German, French, Chinese and English.

This trailer communicates the beauty of The Red Violin, but in my opinion it is a failure at conveying the emotional or narrative power of the film. The trailer makes it look dull–which it most certainly is not.

This is a lot of story to tell in just a bit over two hours. Chances were good that a movie with so many self-contained plots was doomed to failure, because asking the audience to invest emotionally in an ensemble of characters, and keep all their situations straight, is a tall order. This is what Cloud Atlas did not do well. The Red Violin, however, keeps the focus where it belongs: on the violin itself. It’s really the main character. The audience becomes emotionally invested not in the people who own the violin–though they may, like the child prodigy, be extremely sympathetic characters–but about the survival and safety of the violin. Case in point: in the Cultural Revolution scene, in a moment of frustration the Sylvia Chang character nearly smashes the violin. Watching this scene you, as the audience, suck in your breath hoping against hope she won’t do it. There’s another scene later on where a sound technician talks casually about taking the violin apart; similarly, the audience cringes in horror at the thought. The emotional roller-coaster of the auction at the end is tense because the audience is hoping that the violin doesn’t end up in the hands of someone who doesn’t appreciate its beauty and history. It can be immortal in the right hands, but it can also be destroyed very easily, and almost is several times in the film.

Girard, then, accomplishes something pretty unique in a mainstream movie: he makes the audience care about an inanimate object. But the way the movie is written, shot and acted, the red violin seems like so much more than just an object. It almost has a mind of its own, enchanting new generations of owners as a means of its own survival and being passed on to the future. In one scene, for instance, the red violin has literally been buried in someone’s coffin–but in the very next scene a band of Roma (Gypsies) have dug up the grave and are happily playing the instrument. The violin is a little like the One Ring in Lord of the Rings, but decidedly less evil. There’s also a twist where we find out why the violin is red–and it packs an emotional wallop that I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say, it’ll take your breath away even if you see the twist coming.

This scene from The Red Violin features child actor Christoph Koncz as a frail prodigy. This portion of the film takes place in Austria about 1795.

Part of The Red Violin’s power is the obvious care and skill with which it’s photographed and directed. The cinematography is stunning, showing us picturesque Austrian mountaintops, the cluttered streets of 1790s Vienna, the mahogany parlors of a Victorian English mansion, the squalor and claustrophobia of China in the 1960s, and the glitzy world of a big-ticket auction house. The film was shot on three continents and must have been a sprawling production, but Giraud’s direction is very tight, almost understated. The performances also stand out. Child star Christoph Koncz is especially touching as the orphan prodigy Kaspar. Jason Flemyng and Gretta Scacchi, as a pair of star-crossed lovers, leave virtually no scenery un-chewed in their over-the-top performances; Flemyng also does some bedroom scenes that are fun to look at if you’re into pasty ginger-haired Brits. Although she’s onscreen for only a few minutes, Sylvia Chang nearly steals the whole movie with her intense performance as Xiang Pei. And you’ve probably never seen a performance from Samuel L. Jackson like this one. He never says the F-word once, possibly a first for him.

With as brilliant and beautiful as this film is, I’m stunned it’s not more well-regarded. When it came out in 1998 critical reaction was generally good but not stellar, with most of the negative reviews saying it was “too ambitious” or lacked focus. It was not a financial success, earning back only half of its $18 million production cost. The Red Violin cleaned up at the Genie Awards–essentially the Oscars of Canada, winning Best Picture–but scored only one lonely Academy Award, that for best original score. It generally did not appear on critics’ decade-end best lists.

This inventive scene from The Red Violin shows how successful director Francois Girard is at compressing vast amounts of time and space into a cohesive, watchable story.

I think that’s a terrible oversight. The Red Violin is everything a compelling, well-made film should be, and also has the advantage of pulling off successfully the trickiest of gambles, that being a presentation of multiple stories in numerous time periods and languages. Cloud Atlas took that gamble and lost, but Francois Girard knew how to do it with this film. But great movies have long shelf-lives. Over the next few years and decades I wouldn’t be surprised to see The Red Violin start to creep into the conversation when truly visionary cinema is discussed.

The poster for The Red Violin is copyright (C) 1998 by New Line Cinema, the film’s original distributors. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use.