The 37th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival opened Wednesday, March 2, with a return to the Arlington Theatre for an in-person screening of the Opening Night Film, "The Phantom of the Open." | Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF

For the record, it has been 110 weeks since we’ve experienced the ordinarily annual tradition of a Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) opening night gala at the Arlington Theatre. And what a long, strange, crowd-fearing trip it’s been. Last season, the SBIFF mustered a remote, pandemic-suitable substitute of a festival, and streamed it into our living rooms while also serving up cinema drive-in style at SBCC: Beach-blanket film geekdom.

Masked audience members packed inside the Arlington Theatre for opening night of the 2022 Santa Barbara International Film Festival on March 2. | Credit: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

But last night at the Arlington, the old order and ritual were restored, apart, that is, from vaccination stations and a masked audience. Klieg lights scoured the sky outside the venue. Our man Roger Durling, SBIFF executive director and charismatic cinema socialite and booster, was the reassuring presence driving the welcome wagon. Once again, he asked us to share two minutes’ camaraderie with our neighbors, this time suggesting that those uncomfortable with old-school human interaction use sign language instead. 

The opening film on a genuinely big screen was the affable British bonbon, The Phantom of the Open. Formidable actors Sally Hawkins and Mark Rylance ennoble director Craig Roberts’s film, which tells the true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a lovable everyman and the “world’s worst golfer” who becomes the “people’s golfer” after finagling his way into the British Open. Here, it duly served the function as a crowd-pleasing treat, kicking off more serious cinematic business to come at the fest.

Credit: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

The unveiling of the short trailer reel that will precede the 100+ films screened over the next 10 days was a highlight of opening night. Unlike gaudier and more show biz-y trailers of old, this is is a shockingly subtle piece of work featuring fabled Santa Barbara painter Hank Pitcher. Pitcher supplied this year’s SBIFF poster, and the trailer shows him painting on the beach. In it, he discusses similarities between appraising the surf conditions and going to the movies, noting that “both are about desire and discovery.” It’s the best SBIFF trailer since the animation that sported Parry Gripp’s hilarious “I have a megaphone” song.

The festival has grown in significance as a stop on the international film festivals circuit throughout Durling’s tenure as director. This year, the festival rises even further in the ranks, in the wake of the Omicron-led cancellation of the Sundance and Palm Springs film festivals and the great disappearing act of the Golden Globes.

Are more eyes, attention, and visitors focused on Santa Barbara this time out? It could well be. There are plenty of lures for movie watchers and insiders, starting with a stellar slate of tribute evenings and panels. Tonight’s “Directors of the Year” event may be the most “star-studded” gathering of the festival, as it showcases many directors with Oscar nominations, including those from the international sector. 

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It’s hard for any film fan to resist an evening stocked with these talents: Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car — many people’s film of the year — and also the fascinating 2021 film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy), Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza), Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), and, oh yes, Steven Spielberg (West Side Story).

In his opening-night introduction, SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling said we “are holding a place in our heart for Ukraine.” | Credit: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF

Great actors will be in town as well, starting with Spencer star Kristen Stewart on Friday and continuing on Sunday with Will Smith and his King Richard co-star Aunjanue Ellis. Benedict Cumberbatch, so striking in The Power of the Dog, shows up at the Arlington on March 9. On Thursday, March 10, we get a double-dose of celebrity goodness with the screen Ricardos, Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman. Saturday’s Virtuosos Award features actors in juicy supporting roles who made 2021 a highly watchable year at the movies.

Not too shabby. And in person! (Although Bill Murray’s delightfully low-tech Zoom show last year was charming on the funky-tech front).

Roger Durling, SBIFF executive director | Credit: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

Of course, the festival’s heart is its film programming, which again promises to offer much in the way of world cinema, this time under the programming direction of noted critic Claudia Puig (USA Today) and her new group of programmers. Spanish/Latin, Nordic, and Eastern European cinema offerings look especially rich. 

Despite the ceremonial ambiance of the evening, a specter of global unease hovered over the proceedings. The Arlington’s steeple was lit in the national colors of Ukraine, and antiwar demonstrators quietly held signs and passed out information on ways to aid the besieged nation, just beyond the red-carpet hubbub. 

In his introduction, Durling said we “are holding a place in our heart for Ukraine.” While he questioned the role of escapism at a time of such peril, he also emphasized art’s ability to ignite community and create solidarity. He added that international festivals like this one invite us directly into the worlds of other cultures. 

“Film allowed me to explore what it means to be human,” he noted, later adding that “art makes a difference in how we live our lives…. Positivity, gratitude, and hope are what I wish for you.”

With that, let the celebration of cinema and humanity begin.

See and follow our daily SBIFF coverage at Don’t forget to catch our cover package on the festival here.

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