Last Sunday, March 12, at the Arlington, the 37th annual SBIFF wrapped in a songful way, on more than one level. Before the screening of the closing film Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, executive director Roger Durling stood stage front, with the entire festival staff behind him. With now 20 years on the job and a reputation as an enthusiastic festival spearhead and community mover-shaker, Durling commented that “the thing I loved most about this festival was the sound of laughter. We have missed that.”
Speaking more broadly about this first return to a live, non-streamed SBIFF since February of 2020, Durling declared “mission accomplished. The festival did what it had to do.”
That mission involved rebirthing itself and working under much tighter economic conditions than usual. Despite the general feeling of a return to the stuff of actual audiences in actual theaters, COVID consciousness had not left the building. Masked audiences filled the rooms, and some of the tribute guests — Jane Campion, Steven Spielberg, and Ryusuke (Drive My Car) Hamaguchi — had to appear via video, from their quarantining outposts. Nicole Kidman also loomed on a zoom screen gone epic due to an injury, but that evening ended with the very flesh-and-blood charmer Javier Bardem, her co-star in Being the Ricardos.
Early in the festival, the Outstanding Directors evening and a Kirsten Stewart tribute lit up the Arlington. A packed house showed up for the Benedict Cumberbatch tribute. But perhaps the most powerful and emotional evening of the festival was a deserving tribute to the great Penélope Cruz. Durling, clearly a significant fan of Cruz and her creative ally, auteur Pedro Almodovar, handled the interviewer role with great aplomb. It was possibly his best SBIFF moderator performance to date.
Will Smith demonstrated his timing as a comedian, pulling off the festival’s finest unscripted moment. After an altercation bubbled up in the Arlington, he turned to his fellow award recipient Aunjanue Ellis and deadpanned, “see, that’s why it’s important to have white audiences because that would’ve gone differently where you and I grew up.”
Yes, the rejuvenating sound of collective laughter rang out during the festival, especially in its lighter comic moments, at screenings of The Good Boss, Hard Shell, Soft Shell, Miss Viborg, NÖ, and others. As Danish director Marianne Blicher (Miss Viborg) told the audience in a Q&A, “if we had more humor in our daily lives. Maybe we could move mountains.”
But much of the festival’s program dealt with more serious business in a time gripped by serious matters. Ukraine relief efforts became a running subtheme of the festival, drawing fest-goers to donate to the Santa Barbara-based Direct Relief through the festival website and raising nearly $100,000.
SBIFF’s new programming director, veteran film critic Claudia Puig, with her new programming team, pulled together a 200+ title roster which seemed noticeably more robust than before, especially in the international sphere. Reportedly, a larger-than-usual number of entries poured in this year, partly because of the cancellation of other film festivals, giving SBIFF a higher profile on the festival circuit.
Among the highlights was a focus on more women filmmakers and central female subjects and issues than ever before at the festival, in a year when Campion—who appeared in town three times—is an Oscar-nominated heroine of cinema’s moment.
Given the heftier program and the long days/nights of taking in as much as possible, this critic’s Top Ten needed to breathe a bit, stretching to a Top Dozen: Miss Viborg (Marianne Blicher), The Righteous (Mark O’Brien), Islands (Martin Edralin), Nitram (Justin Kerzel), You Resemble Me (Dina Emer), The Good Boss (Fernando Leon de Aranoa), 107 Women (Péter Kerekes), NÖ (Dietrich Brüggemann), House of Darkness (Neil LaBute), La Hija (Manuel Martín Cuenca), One Road to Quartzsite (Ryan Maxey), Ricochet (Jeff Adachi, Chihiro Wimbush).