Quirky incidents at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, occurrences off to the left of business-as-usual at tributes and other events, can be worth the price of admission. Chalk up another one on Friday night’s “Cinema Vanguard” multi-actor tribute, when Roger Durling kindly held Vera (Up in the Air) Farmiga’s purse and contagion of laughter onstage and off followed after Durling commented “your purse is buzzing.”

Arguably, the star of the line-up at the Lobero was the experience “overnight sensation” Christoph Waltz, whose role as the suave and sadistic Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds was a marvel of detestable charm. Durling mentioned Kirk Douglas’ comment at last Sunday’s klatch with Quentin Tarantino at the Lobero, when the man who would be Spartacus called Waltz’ performance the finest of the year and said he wished he could have played it. As the Austrian Waltz admitted, he has had a 30-year career, but that “the success was overnight” — at least in terms of Hollywood hosannas.

Christoph Waltz in <em>Inglourious Basterds</em>.

In news far from Hollywood, on Friday morning at the film festival, slouching towards weekend two, we got a double-header of intriguing films from the “Focus on Quebec” with medicine and mortality on their minds. In the wonderfully understated and humane The Legacy, a doctor from Montreal escapes the impersonal thrum of metropolitan health care for work in a small town clinic in Northern Quebec, at one point commenting, “I can’t stand being so close to my patients.” The film deals with the idea of doctors being in a position at the complex juncture of many lives.

In the more cinematically adventurous but similarly meditative — and musically-sensitive — Vital Signs, the disarmingly fine Marie-Hélène Bellavance (a non-actor pressed into service), an actual double amputee, plays a troubled and compassionate woman who spends her days volunteering at a hospice-like facility, helping patients die with dignity. After the screening, writer-director Shannon Walsh spoke about a subtheme of her memorable film, that “life is so fragile…we better cherish it.”

Incidentally, in an oddly related and compatible pairing, the Vital Signs screening opened with a dream-like and seamlessly realized short on the theme of death and mortal passage, “Danse Macabre,” which may be the festival’s best short (this coming from a viewer who has yet to see many yet).

Meanwhile, from another corner of the world, the “Eastern Bloc” parade continued with more impressive films from the eastern front, and from very divergent expressive perspectives. The hypnotic Romanian film Katalin Varga, one of the festival’s finest examples of “poetic cinema,” is rough-hewn and brusquely beautiful. It is vaguely a variation on the rape-and-revenge genre, but with a folk art-like flavor all its own. Much slicker, but with its own sense of style, Reverse — Poland’s Oscar bid — is mostly in yummy black and white, and stirs together Soviet bloc angst and semi-comic film noir savvy.

One of the stronger docs in the line-up this year, and a film with a clear purpose,

In the Land of the Free… vividly and thoroughly tells the tale of the two prisoners — with Black Panther connections — who have spent 37 years in solitary confinement for a prison guard murder they presumably didn’t commit, in the infamous Louisianan prison. Like The Thin Blue Line, but presented in a more clear-headed, non-arty mode, Vadim Jean’s exploration of the case, enriched with visual flair, is persuasive fodder for the inmates’ release (which hasn’t quite happened… yet).

After navigating a dizzying swath of films, slaloming from one part of the world to another and trying to keep the plots and characters straight, we start noticing recurring themes and incidents popping up. At the risk of wee plot spoilers, here are a couple of noted patterns at the movies. Hangings — successful, failed, and comical: Letters to Father Jaakob, Katalin Varga, and Ashkan, The Charmed Ring and Other Stories. Car crashes and pedestrian casualties: Vital Signs, El Paso, The Athlete, Zero, and, natch, Accident.


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