Alfonso Cuarón, Director of Roma, joins the 34th Santa Barbara International Film Festival for the Outstanding Directors Awards
Julia Keane

All due respect to the actors being feted at SBIFF, but 2019 may be a year when the brighter spotlight shines on star directors. Or at least that was the salient impression last night, when the Arlington stage virtually bowed under artistic weight of its Outstanding Directors tribute. The Oscar-nominated ensemble in question: Alfonso Cuarón, Yorgos Lanthimos, Spike Lee, Adam McKay, and Pawel Pawlikowski.

A notable and uncommon trend among the group was an inspiring international contingency, between wildly imaginative Greek Yorgos Lanthimos (whose The Favourite was tame compared to his head-twisting Killing of a Sacred Deer), the Polish Pawel Pawlikowski (who created a true jewel with Cold War, the best music-oriented film of the year) and…global drum roll, please… Alfonso Cuarón , whose stunning Roma may well be the greatest film of the year, a grand coup for Cuarón and for Mexican cinema. From these shores, Adam McKay stoked our political outrage with Vice, as did Spike Lee (glowing, and gloating a bit, now that Oscar finally paid him a directorial nom-nod) with his BlacKkKlansman.

But Roma‘s deserved domination of audience’s love at the moment duly spilled over the streets of Santa Barbara and the Cuarón-mania extended to screenings of his previous films, Y tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, and Gravity during the fest. Just before the Arlington event, Cuarón gave a generous Q&A following a free screening of Roma at the Lobero, along with the America’s new sweetheart, Yalitza Aparicio, the shining star of the film. The packed house gave each a standing ovation. (Catch Aparicio again as part of the “Virtuosos Award” event on Tuesday, February 5).

Aparicio, a non-actor until last year and the first indigenous person to get an Oscar nomination, told moderator Roger Durling that, “I never considered being an actor because I never saw actors who looked like me.” She has touched viewers and registered emotionally around the world, she feels, “because [her character] is a real woman. Women go through the same kinds of troubles.”

Reality checks are an important part of Roma from the concept upward. For Cuarón, coming off of his existential space tale Gravity (alluded to in the appearance of the similar 1969 film Marooned in Roma), he said that he “wanted to have characters who were grounded — literally. I wanted something very real which was based on memories, and to honor those memories.”

To revisit the specific Mexico City landscape and emotional turf of his youth, circa 1971, was a journey into memory, although he asserted that “memory is the biggest liar. It’s tainted by our present knowledge and understanding.” He also pointed to the critical intersection of his personal world at the time and the turbulent socio-political churnings of the city and nation. “Environment and existence inform each other,” he said, adding that with his film, “I wanted to share sounds. I realize that these are wounds that humanity shares.”

With Roma, an effectively innovative black-and-white film and a compelling human saga, Cuarón said, “I needed to push my bounds, to do something I hadn’t done before. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. I wanted to be something that would surprise me.”

That evening at the Arlington, during the final segment of the Outstanding Directors tribute when all directors swapped compliments and joking banter, Cuarón only half-joked, “I don’t know about you guys, but by the end of making a movie, I’m sick of it. I’m exhausted.” Lee piped up with a telling quip: “Yeah, that’s because you directed it, wrote it, produced it, and did the cinematography!” Laughter rippled in the hall, as did a ring of truth.

When the history of cinema is writ, the takeaway may well be that Cuarón owned 2018. And we got a good dose of him in our town yesterday.

Films to See: Two films in the 2019 SBIFF program come bearing the title “Angel,” and different as each is from one another, they share a quality of artfully exploring plights of women (and girls thrust into womanhood prematurely) and filmic qualities balancing edginess and tenderness.

Belgian director Koen Mortier’s Angel traces, in tangled-time form, the story of a Senegalese sex worker, Fae (the lovely and affecting Fatou N’Diaye), and her evanescent brush with true love in the form of a troubled Belgian bicycle racer, Thierry (Vincent Rottiers, a volatile wanna-be lover), over the course of a night in Senegal. Mortier zeroes in on the sumptuous but also mercurial atmosphere of passions of the night (and very early morning), and the tension of lost souls seeking the light of love. Fae finds her dreams taking vague shape; Thierry is haunted by nightmares of a bicycle crash and the impending wreck of his career. They meet in some fleetingly enchanted middle.

French director Vanessa Filho’s film Angel Face — one of many entries directed by a woman — is, at times, one of the saddest films of the festival, compounded by the fact that our ill-fated heroine is an eight-year-old Ellie (Ayline Etaix, in a quiet, compelling performance). The forced precociousness of Ellie is the result of the flighty affections and disappearances of her alcoholic mother (Marion Cotillard, who can’t seem to give a less-than charismatic performance and relishes the trashiness of the role), ever on a downward spiral and hopeful rebound — right to the end. Left in the lurch is Ellie, who drinks and flirts with boys, while the eight-year-old within yearns for a solid parent figure.

Amid the thematic seriousness that tends to filter into a film festival’s mix, comedy happens. Take Babysplitters, a charming enough and laugh-speckled American indie film from director Sam Friedlander in the general vein of fertility follies. Two couples, struggling in various ways with baby-making, devise an economical “splitting” scheme involving a carefully regulated hotel tryst with a purpose, and encounter comic setups on the path to alternative parenthood.

Better yet, check out the Austrian romp What Have We Done to Deserve This?, director Eva Spretizhofer’s tasty and funny tale of a family with a teenaged daughter who suddenly converts to Islam. Another recommended comic relief fare is the Murphy’s Law number Siren’s Call (Ramin Matin) from Turkey, about a burnt-out architect (Deniz Celiloglu) in Istanbul following a young woman siren’s call to escape the urban blur. A series of punishing, and farcical, fates befall him on his escape route, in a sad sack comedy that speaks across cultures and comedy codes.


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