<em>On Body and Soul</em>

In some way, the Hungarian film On Body and Soul — my favorite of this year’s SBIFF program — has some lateral kinship to that film that has the world and the Oscar pundits abuzz, The Shape of Water. Both films — at once artistic and emotionally charged in their own ways — deal with definitely fringe characters who, against many odds, circle their way into each other’s worlds and find the transformative majesty of true love to guide them into what we assume is a happy ending beyond the final scene.

But the “offbeat” love story in an unconventional setting is where the films depart from the realm of similarity. Where Guillermo del Toro steers his story into a self-designed and masterful fantasy world, On Body and Soul goes to an entirely ’nother place: Call it love in the slaughterhouse, between an older, kindly but aloof manager with a limp arm and a bright new employee with signs of being on the autism spectrum. Both are socially awkward and people of few words, trying to work through the fog — and the fog of dreams — into each others’ arms.

Director Ildikó Enyedi has pulled off some kind of idiosyncratic but deeply beautiful magic with her staggeringly fine film, which won the Berlin Festival’s Golden Bear and was rightly tapped as one of this year’s five foreign-film Oscar nominees. (See another nominee, Sweden’s The Square, today at 2 p.m., in the Metroplex compound.)

As the title suggests, this unusual tale is built on the contrasting polarities of body and soul, workaday life and the magic sauce of love, and meat and sentient animal consciousness (as startlingly revealed in the important scene of a blithe bovine meeting its abrupt end, and being quickly sent through the meat-processing chain).

Much credit for the film’s appeal goes to cinematographer Mate Herbai, who worked with Enyedi to create a visually ravishing story, with many pristine, cryptic shots — especially inside the presumably drab death engine/workplace — with the singular presence of fine-art still photographs. The entrancing look and feel of the film helps to articulate the delicate balance of objective detachment and highly personal emotional stakes in the story and in the mise en scène.

A strong undercurrent in the film is the power and the dreams, which become both a retreat from the concrete reality and a literally connective tissue between our lover protagonists. The film, in fact, opens with a deer dream, a leitmotif that recurs throughout — like the lingering memories and half-memories of dreams we’ve had — and the film itself proceeds with something of a dreamy logic. You can take the love out of the slaughterhouse setting and the film becomes a poetic case of art about dreams, and vice versa, a slippery but ever-relevant relationship.

Enyedi was on hand at the Lobero last night for a post-screening Q&A and, as with the previous night’s Q&A with Chilean director Sebastian Lelio, of The Fantastic Woman fame, we got a palpable sense of a deep thinker in the house, interested in much more than the concerns of Hollywood filmmakers and in using cinema in fresh, revealing ways.

Asked by interviewer Roger Durling, SBIFF’s artistic director of long standing, about the origins of the story and her film, Enyedi admitted to her central concept materializing out of some unfocused ideas about a love story from a very different context, and that “this complex feeling was my compass, really. The film is about surfaces, passions and longing …. I wanted to put [the lovers] in a situation where they were forced to act. They had put themselves in a cage, in safety zones.”

More broadly, her film came out of her sense that “a lot of our life is deep frozen. I wanted to melt it.” She spoke about settling on the slaughterhouse as a setting for her love story, considering its status as a “normal workplace” with an unsettling reality at the core of its death-meat factory job that feeds the blindered carnivores among us. The process within is something “we don’t want to see,” she said, making an analogy “it’s better not to see how iPhones are made. It’s like a secret deal.”

On a happier note, her screen maneuvers with hypnotic deer dreams is a key appeal here. “Deer are such gorgeous creatures,” she noted, “and metaphorical in many ways.” She wanted to emphasize the “everyday aspect of dreaming. We need to eat. We need to dream. Otherwise, we die. We are living in our objectified imaginations, and dreams are an important part of our life.”

Ditto, great films with dreams in a starring role.

Films to See, today!: Aside from the Oscar-nommed The Square (which also played at the Riviera last year), the best bets for this final screening day include the fantastic and poetic Icelandic film The Swan — an beguiling first film for director Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir — and Sad Hill Unearthed is one of this SBIFF’s sneak attack hits, a doc about a passionate fan based group reconstructing a Northern Spain set from the classic Leone “spaghetti western” The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Passionate film fans of all stripes will relate.

Despite the tease of its title, Filthy is a plainly painful, but also powerful and important Czech film, from director Tereza Nvotova, about the complex damages wrought by rape, especially on a young woman fearful of being “the rape victim.” Holy Camp!, though uneven and too long, is a campy-fun semi-musical in a nun-run camp in Spain, with visions of God as a crooner specializing in Whitney Houston arena ballads.

I went to the Canadian film Adventures in Public School reluctantly, not expecting much from a teen awakening comedy or, frankly, from the Canadian cinema component at SBIFF, which didn’t seem very strong this year. Mea culpa: This was the most laugh-out-loud comedy of the fest (well, my fest) and a refreshingly irreverent twist on the well-worn genre, about a precocious teen boy making the transition from a life of home-schooling (with a free-spirited and quirky mother) into the public school universe. Director Kyle Rideout deft, daft pleasure spree of a teen flick reignites the age-old question: What is it about these Canadians that empowers so many of them with comic aplomb?

SBIFF’s 10-day escape route plan is fast approaching its finale, being tonight’s closing night presentation of “Santa Barbara Documentary Shorts,” a rare locavore closing night event. That local focus comes at a fragile and propitious moment in our community’s history, when coming together and rallying for relief from fire-blood ravages is on the collective brain and in the collective heart.

The 33rd SBIFF has been another feast of riches for cinephiles, and audiences with varied interests, well considered in the festival’s diversified overview of a plot and programming agenda. For myself and many others, SBIFF is a great opportunity to check in with what’s happening in the worldly spectrum of the film world, beyond the hyper-marketed glitz-blitz of Hollywood mind control. To see these often art-centric films from other countries, and on the big screen — the way it’s intended! — is a treat renewable each year around SBIFF time.

With that caveat in mind, here is a list of favorites from the 2018 SBIFF: Of Body and Soul, The Swan, Daybreak, The Party, The Fantastic Woman, Oh Lucy!, The Insult, Hotel Salvation, Gutland, The Double Lover, Tulipani: Love, Humour and a Bicycle, Euthanasia, Arrhythmia, The Quartette, Living in the Future’s Past.

The usual end-of-fest gloom is leavened this year by the fact that Santa Barbara now proudly boasts two art houses — the SBIFF-run Riviera and The Hitchcock Public House. May the festival spirit continue, even if in a much less concentrated way.


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