Santa Barbara International Film Festival: Day 11

Bingeing on Films from Around the World


'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' | Credit: Courtesy

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A key agenda of SBIFF has to do with venturing out into the world, via world cinema screenings, and also bringing the Hollywood/Oscar-timed world into Santa Barbara for 11 days. But for the final two days of the fest, the agenda turns in-house and locavore, in different ways.

Friday night’s prime time event at the Arlington — ground zero for tributes to Bong Joon-ho, Brad Pitt, Renee Zellweger, Laura Dern, Lupita Nyong’o, and others — offered up a rare showcase of the mighty and historic Arlington Theater pipe organ. Fine organist Adam Aceto cranked up and massaged the grand instrument, its console rising from its sub-stage home, with pipes and drums strategically hidden in the upstairs rooms of the theater’s faux village decor. On screen, the classic silent film The Hunchback of Notre Dame loomed and grimaced. It was a magical meeting of sight sound and building specific instrument.

Friday night at the Arlington, the spotlight turned local as the festival continues its still-young tradition of screening short Santa Barbara films in the finale slot. This homecoming-style endgame theme serves the festival’s homegrown roots well. The tactic also implicitly pays tribute to the late filmmaker Russ Spencer, who left us in 2019, and whose supportive efforts helped greatly to refocus the festival’s link to local filmmaking.

‘Corpus Christi’

POLISH TRIUMPHS: It turns out that Polish cinema supplied this year’s SBIFF program with some of its heartier, artier stuff. Corpus Christi, Poland’s bid for the Foreign Film Oscar, is a compelling tale of redemption and transgressions on various levels. Our protagonist is a tough-skinned convict braving prison life but also readily finding his beneficent, compassionate path as a village priest, albeit without the sanction of the rigid Catholic order.

Supernova, boldly directed by Michal Dymek, is a filmic wonder of an entirely different sort, a powerful, real-time account of a hit-and-run scene through which broader themes of class struggle and political corruption become cleverly interwoven into the narrative fabric. The film is compact, clocking in at 75 minutes, but grippingly intense from the opening, stage-setting scene: a woman takes her children down a road, fleeing a drunken lout of a husband-father. What happens next, and next, and next, sucks us into a narrative vortex that can shock the senses and trigger emotions, but which also fascinates on the level of cinema taken to an inventive new place. Call it emo-experimental cinema.

DENMARK MEETS CINE-ART, AND HOLLYWOOD: Stylized filmic ventures have only occasional popped up on this year’s program, including the almost literally mesmerizing Danish film Psychosia, a meditation in a mental asylum and in the minds of its intentionally fuzzily-defined characters. Ironically, another Danish film, Collision, feels less Danish than Hollywood-ized. The film’s irritating melodramatics and surfeit of “bad things happening to good people” theme ultimately undermine its virtues (including strong acting).

As it turns out, director Mehdi Avaz, whose brother Milad wrote the screenplay, are intentionally moving away from the hallmarks of more adventurous Danish cinema, of the Dogme 95 and the arthouse-bound Scandinavia cinema, with “underlighting, hand held camera, real time,” according to Mehdi Avaz, during the post-screening Q&A. His aim is more about aping American movies. The director explained that while critics and cinema power figures scorn the work he and his brothers’ do, for being “too Hollywood, too cheesy,” they enjoy the embrace of popular vote in Danish movie houses. “Real people like you like our films,” he told the Fiesta 4 crowd. My only problem with the film was that it was, well, too Hollywood, too cheesy.

In Brazilian writer-director Emiliano Cunha’s slow-brew but engrossing film Lane 4, the motif of swimming and underwater passions drive the story. A girl about to turn 13 — a competitive swimmer of few words but many facially telegraphed emotions — is on the brink of some epiphany. Although we are led to expect coming-of-age film clichés and trajectories, subtle hints tell us something else is in motion, including sly references to horror films — such as a grisly clip from a slasher film that we first assume is our troubled heroine’s dream. Assumptions can be dangerous with deceptive “normal,” secretly mold-breaking films such as this one.

Fans of opera and other “serious” music modes, NYC architecture buffs, and cinephiles obsessed with Martin Scorsese are among the demographics who should be drawn to the fascinating documentary The Oratorio. Directors Alex Bayer, Jonathan Mann, and Mary Anne Rothberg follow the ambitious project of recreating a historic 1826 “oratorio” project in the basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, at the corner of Prince and Mulberry streets (not to be confused with St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Ave.) in what was then a rural area of Manhattan. Reportedly, the event was also something of a cornerstone in ushering high culture into the bones and veins of the then somewhat backward NYC, now America’s cultural capitol.

There are multiple points of interest in the story — and many backstories — in The Oratorio, in that neighborhood, and going back to Italy, where the restoration project came together. But for film geeks, the greatest charm may be having Scorsese as our eloquent tour guide to the church, in the heart of the Italian area where he grew up and hung out. He makes connections to aspects of his films, such as the old Italian song ending Mean Streets, and more generally, effuses that the old church “affected the way I’ve seen the world, and heard the world.” St. Marty speaks. We listen and take notes.

Films to See: Notable films on the final day’s program, of those I’ve seen and can vouch for: Supernova, Mentors: Tony and Santi (Andy Davis’ warm and wonderful doc), the excellent 37 Seconds, Blow the Man Down (think TV’s Fargo, gone to Maine), and I’ve heard that Antigone is a must-see. See you there.

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