Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) Executive Director Roger Durling was especially effusive onstage at The Arlington Theatre on Tuesday, March 8, as he introduced “flesh-and-blood Goddess” Penélope Cruz and twice bellowed out “Viva Penélope!” The audience was similarly inclined to love the actress, whose long career has reached another apex.
Cruz, last paid tribute at SBIFF in 2009, is up for an Oscar for her stunning performance in Parallel Mothers, the seventh project she has embarked on with Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar. Their creative relationship is one of the greatest director-actor, artist-muse relationships in modern cinema.
In a wide-ranging two-hour tribute evening, she spoke about her early days and passion for acting, initially studying ballet but falling in love with acting, especially in movies. Early on, she sought out — possibly stalked, as Durling suggested — Almodóvar and ended up becoming his primary actress-of-choice. Thankfully, the focus of the evening was on her work with Almodóvar, glossing over her various Hollywood projects.
With Almodóvar, she commented, “the connection is so strong, I can never lie to him, on set or in life.”
“I am very grateful and feel lucky for all that I’ve been able to do,” she said of her career and life as an actress, “but I also torture myself a lot.” In developing and getting into the skin of a new role, especially with characters as complex and cross-genre as Almodóvar’s, she said, “you’re always starting from zero. You never feel like you’re in control. But I love the research and the mystery of finding out who this character is.
“My rhythm is different at this stage [of my career], but I still have the same excitement as when I was 4 years old.”
Her husband, Javier Bardem, was also at the Arlington, where he will be onstage on Thursday night. Bardem, Oscar-nominated for his role in Being the Ricardos, will be honored alongside co-star Nicole Kidman, the Lucille Ball to Bardem’s Desi Arnaz. Kidman will appear on video due to a recent injury.
To present the Montecito Award on Tuesday, Sophia Loren’s son Edoardo Ponti appeared at the podium to sing Cruz’s praises. He then passed the mic to Loren herself, who spoke via video. Loren is one of the mythic archetypal actresses to whom Cruz is most often compared.
Accepting the award, the strong but humble Cruz said she would like to share this with Almodóvar and extend compassion for the women of Ukraine as her final comment on this International Women’s Day.
Told in 13 single-take episodes over several years, the German film Nö is a sometimes wild dramedy in the guise of a tale of modern romance. Director Dietrich Brüggemann wrote the screenplay with his wife and star, Anna Brüggemann. We get innocent love, would-be marriage, baby carriage, frayed edges and commitment, a sadistic dentist, a patient who wakes up and converses in the middle of a surgery, and a baby monitor telegraphing the fast-motion life from infant to departing adolescent.
We’re never quite sure where quotidian life and absurdity might intersect or where poignant observations about relationships and family ways will segue into dry comic detours or edgy twists, which accounts for the oddball appeal of this post-modern charmer. Nö may be the most surreal and semi-unsettling “feel-good” film of this year’s festival. We say yes to Nö.
TWO VIEWS OF THE D.R.
There are two radically different films dealing with the Dominican Republic this year. On the bright side, Santa Ynez resident Gardner Grady Hall’s savory alternative baseball movie Winter Ball celebrates the culture, spirit, and love of baseball in the D.R. It tells the story of a rookie pitcher sent to the island to hone his game.
His initially ugly American attitude turns to a passion and compassion for his wintering destination. It’s an impressive debut feature film by Hall, who has worked in various facets of the film industry and was a baseball aspirant who played there and fell in love with the people and place.
On the much grimmer side, exploring a dark historical chapter of the island, Perejil (Parsley) is an unflinching account of the Dominican Republic’s notorious 1937 mass execution of Haitians under the cruel dictator Rafael Trujillo’s rule. The film is a powerful chronicle of an authentic night of terror. In a commanding performance, the pregnant Marie Therese (Cyndie Lundy) eludes machetes and rifles of officially sanctioned, vicious Dominican soldiers. As harsh and uncomfortable as the film is to take in, writer/co-director José María Cabral doesn’t so much exploit a grisly massacre as provide cinematic evidence of a horrific politically fueled tragedy in need of collective remembrance.
INTERIOR EXPLORATIONS ON FILM
Dealing with mental illness in film can be a delicate proposition. The medium’s fluidity makes it potentially conducive to delving into the complexities of internal struggles, but the possibility of exploitation of the subject is an ever-present danger. Several films at this year’s SBIFF grapple with characters’ inner demons, but in sensitive if necessarily painful ways. Ultimately, emotional catharsis and increased awareness of the commonality of psychological fragility are the takeaways in each case.
One of the festival’s more substantial entries, You Resemble Me (Tu me ressembles), investigates the personality distortions of a female character ultimately involved in the Bataclan tragedy in Paris in 2015.
The potent Belgian film The Hive (La ruche) drops us into the chaotic household of three daughters and their bipolar mother in a tailspin (Ludivine Sagnier, in one of this festival’s most stunning performances). The film is made all the more vivid through director Christophe Hermans’s use of naturalistic cinema-verité-like production and an artistic aplomb throughout.
Another festival highlight, All My Puny Sorrows, adapts an intensely autobiographical novel by the great and much-heralded Canadian novelist Miriam Toews (who made a big splash with her 2018 book Women Talking). In this novel, the darkly witty Toews, who grew up in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, essentially appears as herself and addresses the tragic family scenario with her suicidal sister, in the shadow of their father’s suicide. Somehow, despite the sad circumstances, the book and now the film transform the sisterly relationship and tight bond, mostly unfolding in a hospital psych ward, into a warm and intellectually riveting exchange of ideas and literate references (the title comes from a Coleridge poem).
And in the Icelandic film Quake, given its U.S. Premiere at the Fiesta 4 on Monday, our protagonist is another writer character trapped in a strained situation. In her case, the onset of an epileptic fit in the presence of her young son sets off a desperate quest to find a root cause. Tracing repressed traumatic memories, which can result in physical disorders, is the underscoring theme of the film.
In a post-screening Q&A, writer/director Tinna Hrafnsdóttir — who based her script on a novel by well-known Icelandic novelist Auður Jónsdóttir — explained that the idea of channeling traumatic memories was one of the forces inspiring her making of the film. In Hrafnsdóttir’s adaptation of the novel, she noted that “there is drama, but there is also a mystery. The mystery is within [the character] herself.”
She added that “I have been through a similar journey myself. If I hadn’t dealt with my issues, I wouldn’t be here at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival today.”