Political dissent knows no physical bounds in this robust and emotionally frosty debut from Mexican writer-director Francisco Vargas that spins a taut yarn of insurgent peasants and brutal military personnel around an extraordinarily delicate central performance from Ángel Tavira, an 81-year-old non-professional. Set in an unnamed Mexican locale during the 1970s, the film gives us Don Plutarco (Tavira), an elderly, one-handed violinist who, along with his son and grandson, chooses to help overthrow the occupying military junta. A realisation that he is too frail to engage in combat leads to him becoming aware of his potential for appearing harmless, and so he decides to infiltrate the enemy camp under the guise of tending to his crops, but with the intention of using his violin case to smuggle ammo to his fellow rebels.
A slightly meandering build-up is saved by a second half that really cooks, with Vargas ratcheting up the tension by flirting with genre convention in order to deal with Plutarco’s unconventional psychological stand-off with a malodorous Captain (Dagoberto Gama). Though we remain sympathetic to Plutarco’s righteous spirit throughout, a sneaky final twist (which arrives as a result of the film’s realist mission rather than any desire to shock) forces us to re-evaluate our feelings for the old man. The director uses this finale to challenge clichés about the romantic allure of music, the sagely mutterings of experience, and our notions of what it takes to be a hero. This is all bolstered by the clean, rustic b&w photography of Martin Boege Pare, which sensibly places Tavira’s expressive, weather-beaten visage to the fore.