Somewhere in the middle of the nicely nonlinear, detour- and anecdote-laden tribute to David O. (American Hustle) Russell, Friday night onstage at the Arlington, interviewer Roger Durling brought up the director’s adept way of stirring up art, intrigue, tragicomic breadth, and elements of surprise in his stellar body of work so far. “You’ve got to go deep,” said the fast-talking, fast-thinking director. “If you’re not gonna give them bombs and chase scenes, you have to give the human opera.” That he does, and does well, as witness Three Kings, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and his kitschy and deep-going Hustle.
In some way, Russell’s comment serves as a fitting mantra and artistic mandate for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the 29th annual edition of which started out its first weekend with a crowd-blessed roster of fine, challenging, and entertaining cinematic fare from the around the world. It all started on a bold, positive note with Thursday’s opening night, featuring the stirring and scarifying state-of-the-ocean film Mission Blue, chronicling heroic oceanographer Sylvia Earle and dedicated to the late and local Mike deGruy. The respected nature filmmaker, who died from a helicopter crash in the field two years ago — and during the festival — had much to contribute to this festival’s hardy health in the past decade.
Russell’s big night was one of a handful of tributes to Oscar-nomination-kissed celebrities and directors (which count as even brighter celebrities among many of us) — also including Cate Blanchett last Saturday, and Leo DiCaprio/Martin Scorsese and Robert Redford coming up. Some kind of festival-validating continuity is starting to pop up with the Arlington star parade: We last caught Russell just a year ago onstage, giving an eloquent and witty award presentation speech to Jennifer Lawrence, during her anointment in the tribute comfy chair. On Friday, Russell explained that it was when running into Amy Adams — another 2013 tributee — in Santa Barbara that he had the idea of including her in American Hustle, a wise move. Ever-charming and wildly talented Aussie Blanchett (who richly deserves the Best Actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine), was toasted here seven years ago, the year she played both the Queen of England and Bob Dylan in one year.
Vis-à-vis Russell’s mantra, amid the dense program mostly screened in the festival hub/art bunker of Metro 4, there was little in the way of bombs or chase scenes (unless you included the adrenaline-ated and kinetic Korean cop movie Cold Eyes). By loosely general consensus, the most impressive film so far is the Palestinian film Omar, a masterful, Oscar-nom film from director Hany (Paradise Now) Abu-Assad. A packed house caught its first screening, at 8 a.m. on Friday morning, making it a hard act to follow. Omar neatly represents SBIFF’s longstanding sociopolitical attention to details and energies of the world at large, in the present moment, as did the brilliant Mexican film La Jaula de Oro, a moving and artful work by director Diego Quemada-Díez, dealing with another repressive wall, another divisive and human-rights-charged spot in the world, just several hours to the south. With minimal dialogue and minimal music, the film drops us into the reality of the dangerous and degrading journey from Guatemala to the presumed “promised land” of the U.S.
Serious themes and better cinematic living through international, subtitled fare once again rule the festival program. The first weekend hit list (many of which play again as the festival moves into its second weekend) includes the grim but meditative Austrian family saga October November, the striking, poetically stylized Lithuanian film The Gambler, and the more slickly produced post-WWII espionage narratives of the Norwegian Two Lives and the French For a Woman. All was not about dark depths, though. For French froth, we got the sassy, salty, and ultimately formula-feel-good comedy Paulette, and the drier, cooler humor package of Iceland’s Bruegel-esque Of Horses and Men (one of my favorites of the first weekend).
World premieres included the pleasing-enough punk-meets-cancer dimensions of the American indie film Mount Joy and Warren, an easy-on-the-brain twenty-something charmer from promising young writer/director/star Alex Beh (and featuring some scene-stealing work by John Heard, of the Santa Barbara–based Cutter’s Way fame). Buzz has it that Queens & Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo is a winner, though I’ve yet to catch it.
This is also a good year for Eastern European cinema in the 805, including the variously rock ’n’ roll geezer-themed stuff of the light-hearted charmer Czech film Revival and the thornier microcosmic black comedy Adria Blues, from Slovenia. Another Czech film, Clownwise, is one of the more visually dazzling films of the program so far and pays due respect to veteran artists of another era and vintage medium. Director Viktor Taus was on hand for a Q&A afterward and stressed that “without memory, we don’t exist.” Let that be a secondary mantra for SBIFF’s memory-baiting film forum.
And did we mention Sunday’s blessed rain? Nothing better than a film festival in the rain. Let’s get to dancing and praying for the wet stuff, the better to excuse lengthy escapes into the movie theater demimonde.