In its 26th year, the Santa Barbara International Film Fest is still expanding upon its broad and culturally-centered sidebars. Amongst the staples, though, the fest’s Focus On Quebec remains one of the strongest. Again curated by festival executive director Roger Durling, this year’s installment doesn’t fall short of expectations, with six strong, performance-driven features that hit hard and delve deep into the human condition. The collection’s lone documentary profiles a shockingly personal tale under the broader umbrella of history’s greatest tragedy. Elsewhere, the films range from historical fiction character studies to intertwining tales of personal strife and relationship failings. And while the subject matter may not be the cheeriest, the resonating power of Durling’s selections stick with you long after the credits start to role on any of these offerings. Here’s a rundown.
A Life Begins (Une view qui commence): Young Charles Antoine Perreault shines as Etienne, an adolescent boy who adores, and then loses his doctor father to an overdose. Seen through Etienne’s eyes, there’s a lightheartedness to even the darkest of moments, aided in no small part by director Michel Monty’s dazzling, slightly saturated 1960s landscape. As a character study, A Life Begins paints a realistic portrait of a child’s struggle with losing a parent. As a visual piece, it presents a mid-century wonderland so spot-on and detail oriented, it’s almost hard to believe it’s a modern creation.
Piché: Sky and Ground (Entre ciel et terre): Michel Côté and Maxime Le Flaguais take on the roles of (young and old) Robert Piché in this grizzly true-life tale of a Toronto pilot who miraculously lands a doomed flight to Lisbon. Idolized by the press, Piché is quickly transformed into an international celebrity, then ripped from his throne by the discovery of his criminal past. Playful chronological devices bring us back-and-forth through Piché’s heroic present and troubled early years, ultimately arriving at a portrait of a man marred by his former discretions, and struggling to find peace in his later years and freedom from his many demons.
Heart of Auschwitz (Le coeur d’Auschwitz): Quebec’s lone documentary offering begins with Fania, an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor who donates her heart — a harrowingly constructed origami birthday card, created within Auschwitz’s factory walls — to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. Once there, the heart takes on a life of its own, and through painstaking searches, reconnects a group of survivors, 60 years later, through the work of a documentary filmmaker. In between survivors’ personal tales, we watch as Fania’s daughter and granddaughter make a pilgrimage to Auschwitz, and a group of Quebec schoolchildren react to the heart and it’s message of hope amidst tragedy.
Remain With Me (Reste avec moi): Robert Ménard directs this intersecting tale about a woman struggling to raise her daughter alone, a man living in resignation over his wife’s alcoholism, a young couple struggling to determine the fate of their unborn child, an elderly man caring for his catatonic spouse, and a foreign couple fighting against all odds to make a better life for themselves and their children in Canada. Despite numerous bisecting storylines, the acting and characterizations hit home, but fall short of raising the storyline beyond its predictable finale.
Blind Spot (Lucidité Passagère): Much like Remain With Me, Blind Spot follows the tried and true multiple storyline, intertwining climax plot structure. Here, we follow four emotionally unraveled characters — the pitiable, unlucky-in-love Véronique, the too-assertive, too-passive womanizer Fred, the ever-suffering artist Rémi, and the salvation seeking Mathieu — whose personal salvation rests in and depends on recognizing the pains of those around them.
Mourning for Anna (Trois temps après la mort d’Anna): Guylaine Tremblay carries this stark, atmospheric, and subtle film about a mother coping with her daughter’s death. Tremblay plays Françoise, a poised and proud divorcee whose violinist daughter is murdered following an especially moving recital. In the wake of tragedy, she escapes to her family’s home in rural Kamouraska to find peace, but instead is haunted by memories of her recent loss and her own childhood. A life-saving reunion with an old friend brings hope of solace, and ultimately a way for Françoise to confront her grief.