So -- whoever recommended this movie to me needs to 'fess up. It's okay, I enjoyed it. Really! I like subtitles once in a while... good for the attention span, good for reheating the high school French. I also like indie dramas, and think it's important to step outside Hollywood from time to time.
Briefly: An Italian violin maker's wife dies in childbirth. Stricken with grief, he finishes his masterpiece -- an exquisite violin for the baby -- and disappears. The rest of the movie is the story, told largely in flashbacks, of what happens to the violin and some of the lives it influences over the next several hundred years and across three continents. The flashbacks are punctuated by scenes of a present-day auction at which the Red Violin is the last lot, and competitively bid upon.
Samuel L. Jackson (a bit unconvincingly, though I can't put my finger on why) plays a violin expert (there's probably a word for that, which I'm revealing myself as a shameless violin ignoramus for not knowing and being disinclined to look up) who becomes so deeply interested in the instrument that he is bound to it. The contemporary scenes follow his research into the violin's origins and his growing convictions about the instrument as the auction nears.
The movie is emotional, mysterious and compelling, and very much worth seeing. However, as it's all about a violin, be warned: much of the soundtrack is, inevitably, excruciating.