SPEAKING IN STRINGS chronicles classical violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's journey to hell and back. The documentary, by first-time director Paola di Florio (which played this year's Seattle International Film Festival), draws on interviews and a variety of footage (performance, archival, home movies) to present a well-rounded portrait of the classical world's resident "wild thing."

Salerno-Sonnenberg burst onto the classical stage in the early '80s, and shocked the more staid keepers of the faith with her highly emotional performances and flamboyant (for the classical world) mode of dress. To di Florio's credit, the film doesn't shy away from those who are critical of Salerno-Sonnenberg; music critic Martin Bernheimer is shown describing the violinist's work as "over-emotional or over-inflected or even distorted."

Nor is di Florio, a childhood friend of Salerno-Sonnenberg, afraid to turn the camera's glare on her film's subject. As Salerno-Sonnenberg told The Stranger last June, her friendship with di Florio helped put her at ease. "It's a very personal film," Salerno-Sonnenberg says. "It's very hard to watch. But I knew Paola for so many years, and I trusted her. She's a really warm character. And she's very, very good at getting stuff out of you that you would normally not want to talk about."

That "stuff" refers not only to an injury the violinist suffered in 1994, when she accidentally cut off the tip of her finger, but also the serious depression that led to a suicide attempt -- subjects anyone might find difficult to discuss, particularly an artist who'd prefer the public focus on her work and not her life. "The fact is, a lot of things that we do personally shape us professionally," Salerno-Sonnenberg says. "How can I play and not think of that day? And not be grateful for what I have now? Of course it affects your work. And I think that's what [di Paola] was trying to get at."

But Speaking in Strings isn't all sturm und drang. Salerno-Sonnenberg is shown relaxing with friends and visiting Pike Place Market's Golden Age Collectibles, while interviews with her mother add a further personal touch. It's a rewarding and revealing documentary about a most fiery personality.

A Classical Wild Thing