From the “don’t know what you’re missing until it’s gone” department, many longtime festival fans have noted the abrupt geocultural shift in programming this year, leaving behind representation from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia (apart from exceptions like the fine Norwegian film Sons of Norway). Looking back on life during Durling time, an inspired 10-year tenure so far, SBIFF has been more than fairly well-stocked with cinema from those parts of the world, and some of us have become spoiled expectant children or junkies abruptly cut off from the stuff that keeps our demons at bay.

But of course, despite the thicket of films on the schedule, it is actually a limited playing field, and a good festival program changes up the points of focus and cultural GPS to live up to its all-important “international” status. Sure was nice catching all those Swedish, Romanian, and other remote, inventive and resourceful cinema scenes. I guess we’ll have to be happy with more goods from old Europe this year.

Declaration of War is another easy-on-the-brain French number in this Franco-phile program, which seems less like film festival fare than a commercial number best seen in multiplexed or Netflixed mode. Leavening the core premise of the story, spanning the agony and love of a cancer-stricken child’s ordeal and the effect on his young parents, are dollops of humor and a neatly crafted storytelling style (too neat, really) and, without warning or explanation, a moment when the couple break into a moody song, musical-style or Magnolia-style, but without the artistic logic. C’est what?

From its unambiguous title forward, Horses tips us off to a driving thematic force behind this charming and visually entrancing Italian film. While two humble, rustic brothers are our presumed protagonists, weaving in and out of good and bad luck, director Michele Rho’s film revels in horse love and horse lore, in which horse-trading, training, and vengeance surrounding said animalia gives equestrian life a glory and heroism to give Warhorse a run for its money. It plays like a folk tale, only occasionally slipping into overly romantic moments, but mostly painting a vivid picture of pre-automobile life in a remote mountain village in the Italian alps.

As if programmed for compare-and-contrast mental exercising, Saturday’s schedule found back-to-back kidnapping sagas, from radically different places (geographically and attitudinally). Colombia’s The Blue of the Sky set the two-fer stage and is one of the rare South American films this year (again, as compared to the riches of the Latin American sidebar we’ve grown accustomed to and fond of in the past few years).

Director Juan Alfredo Uribe, who told us beforehand that he had finished the film only two days earlier, combines genres and moods in a sometimes jarring and slightly bizarre way in the film, as we follow the fate of a soccer player turned kidnap guard in a country where romantic ideals keep bumping up against gritty realities. Civility, and a disarming late-breaking passage in which classical piano music sets the emotional pace and texture, yields to criminality and grisly biz again.

Next up, from the mean streets of Paris, came the fittingly named Sleepless Night, director Frédéric Jardin’s cool and gripping etude in unrelieved tension in the closed spaces of a labyrinthine nightclub. What begins with a gnarly drug heist slows down ever so briefly but otherwise maintains a frantic, cleverly choreographed action pace as the narrative knot involving a kidnapped son, a satchel of drugs, cell phone antics, and crooked cops conspires toward the SBIFF number most likely to give your adrenaline gland a workout.

Further Thoughts on the Opening Night Film: I am representing the dog person contingent of the SBIFF-goer community, regarding our response to Larry Kasdan’s putative “dog movie,” Darling Companion, premiered at the festival opening on Thursday. We, as folks who even toy with the idea of buying the T-shirt reading “the more I learn about humanity, the more I love my dog” felt short-sold by a film in which the dog protagonist, Freeway (beautifully played by Casey), is missing from the movie for over half its runtime.

As an open letter to the esteemed filmmaker, we would like to suggest he make a companion film in which he follows the fate of the dog and leave those boring, pesky humans in the lurch. Where did Freeway go during his time “missing?” What adventures did he have and was he actually happier in the wild? Inquiring dog people want to know.


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