Fans of the 2018 Santa Barbara International Film Festival Virtuosos Award honorees at the Arlington Theatre (Feb. 3, 2018)
Paul Wellman

It was a packed house at the Church of SBIFF (that’s Metro 4 theater for the unbaptized) on Sunday morning, everyone there to take in an important film about a packed courtroom in Beirut. Said courtroom was loaded in various ways: a volatile crowd of Lebanese Palestinians on the right, Christians on the left, and overflowing with cross-references to the festering tensions in the Middle East; a riot going on outside; and a tale of a minor insult mushrooming into a national uproar played out in halls of justice, giving showboating lawyers an excuse to launch into history-tapping pontifications.

Welcome to one of this SBIFF’s finest films, The Insult, the fascinating variation on the courtroom drama genre from Lebanese writer-director Ziad Doueri, whose movie has rightly been tapped as a nominee for the Foreign Film Oscar (and will reportedly head back for a run at the Riviera Theater soon). Doueri, whose resume includes photography work on early Quentin Tarantino films while he lived in Los Angeles, has made a few pictures in Lebanon and started writing this powerful offering three years ago based on a brief (but quickly resolved) insult-spawned altercation of his own.

The gracious and articulate director showed up for a Q&A on the Sunday morning screening, and talked about the delicate balancing act he sought on this project, which bravely attempts to offer a they said/they said scenario with no winners or losers in the end. “People say I didn’t take sides,” he said, with a wry half-smile. “Not true. I took sides. But in the next section, I took the other side.”

In fact, he wrote the film with his wife, Joelle Touma — who grew up on the Christian side of the Lebanese divide, with Doueri on the Palestinian side — and they intentionally wrote scenes from the perspective of the “other side” in the story. The germ of the story began with the thought “What if I start a story with something banal and it just gets out of hand,” with a “snowball effect?” Underscoring that idea is the cycle of tribal vengeance going back generations in the legacies of many Middle East conflicts, some of which are sparked by “banal” evils.

In end, though, Doueri has created a potent and contemporarily important tale of tolerance and a peace-making mission at its root. “I wanted to write a story about hope,” said Doueri. “The Middle East has always been a Pandora’s Box of what can go wrong. Lebanon has a thirst for life.” The director has suffered repression for his efforts, including being arrested and having his films censored in his native country, but he soldiers on as a fighter for peace. In closing, he assured the crowd, “I will continue to make whatever film I want. I will take my camera wherever I want to.”

Films to See: A sleeper wonder in the fest program so far, the Russian film Arrhythmia falls under the category of “filmic films” in the festival program mix — films that extend their creative reach beyond formulae and cliched story-telling methods, using the unique vocabulary of cinema to express something fresh.

In this case, director Boris Khlebnikov has created a fascinating study in the elasticity of time and tempo. Drawing on a naturalistic style, he unveils a story made of layered intensities: the painful slow-burn tale of a marriage on the brink of its breaking point is starkly juxtaposed against the fast-paced and urgency-laded scenes of the paramedic protagonist on calls where life-and-death are often at stake. Beyond the particulars of the story and character study in Arrhythmia, the end effect as a cinematic experience is an arrhythmic — or better yet, polyrhythmic — style of storytelling on film.

From the feelgood corner of the program, Back to Burgundy is worth a look — and a virtual visit, given the sensual pleasures of its French wine setting. In Cedric Klapisch’s film, a son of a multi-generation wine family returns home from his new life in Australia wine country, and runs into emotional scores and bittersweet nostalgia on the occasion of his father’s passing. The main attractions are the beautifully lit scenery, slice of old wine worldly life, the process of wine-making, and seductive shots of wine qualifying as “wine porn.” Plus, it extends a sideways appeal to us S.B. County wine country folk.

Final thumbs-up: There’s something vaguely familiar in form and tone in the emotionally engaging Norwegian film While We Live, and it goes by the name Manchester by the Sea. Made by the Avaz brothers, While We Live follows a similar trajectory of post-traumatic atmosphere hovering over the tale of a troubled protagonist (Sebastian Jessen, in a moving, edgy performance) returning home after a long absence. The source of his and the community’s pain is kept shrewdly close to the narrative chest until deep into the film; the chronologically leap-frogging keeps us guessing and tuned in.

When the puzzle finally resolves, involving an accident that radically disrupts the order of things amongst family, friends, and community (as in Manchester by the Sea), the film takes on a new personality, going forward and in retrospect. But plot synopsis and plot spoilers don’t do justice to the emotional power of the piece: You’ve got to be there for full effect, and preferably (as always) see it on a big screen. Such is the power of film, and SBIFF.


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