Four years ago, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival took place shortly after fires and subsequent mudslides left the region devastated. The next year, a deluge of rain closed Highway 101, leading to postponed events and Viggo Mortensen hopping into an airplane in Camarillo so he could make it to a festival tribute in time.

Last year, the COVID pandemic forced the festival to go virtual, save for a couple of drive-ins that ran programmed films.

So, talking to festival Executive Director Roger Durling, you can sense a palpable relief that this year's festival is looking like it's returning to normal — or as close to normal as things get these days.

"When my dad first taught me how to swim, he told me we're going to go to the ocean in Panama and we pulled into the parking lot and I ran to the ocean and I just jumped in and and almost drowned," Durling says. "And my dad said, 'You're either brave or very stupid.' And that pretty much defines my approach to things. I just move forward. I don't know any other way of functioning."

The Santa Barbara festival moves forward this year, its 37th edition opened Wednesday and runs through March 12. The event will feature a full lineup of films, including 48 world premieres and 95 U.S. premieres from 54 countries, along with tributes to Oscar nominees such as Kristen Stewart, Benedict Cumberbatch and the "Being the Ricardos" team of Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem.

Those tributes, which Durling calls the "window dressing" used to entice people to buy passes, will take place in 2,200-seat Arlington Theatre. The venue will be reduced to half-capacity for most events to allow for a bit of distancing, though the more in-demand tributes (Cumberbatch and the "Ricardos") may be filled a bit more. To attend, festival-goers must be fully vaccinated and wear masks indoors.

The festival will also spotlight panels featuring directors, writers and producers of this year's Oscar-nominated films, as well as conversations with filmmakers Jane Campion, Kenneth Branagh and Paul Thomas Anderson. There will also be a 10th anniversary screening of "Silver Linings Playbook," followed by a Q&A with its writer-director, David O. Russell.

Durling says sales of festival passes aren't as healthy as in years past, mirroring the commercial struggles that movie theaters have been experiencing of late. Single-ticket sales have been picking up though, he notes. And the pandemic didn't affect submissions, which at nearly 5,000 films, established a festival record.

"Apparently, people were making movies during the pandemic," says festival programming director Claudia Puig. "I couldn't believe the number of submissions that poured in."

Puig, former film critic for USA Today and journalist for the Los Angeles Times, came on board as programmer in August and zeroed in on making Latino films a point of emphasis. Noting the number of countries represented at the festival — Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico among them — Puig says there's a diversity that reflects Santa Barbara's demographics.

"The Latino experience is not monolithic," Puig says. "It's a very rich cultural heritage, and Santa Barbara is a city with a very large Latino population. Serving our community, that should be an important influence on the festival."

The British underdog golf comedy "The Phantom of the Open," starring Mark Rylance, will kick off the festival Wednesday. Puig ticks off a few other movies — "Our Words Collide," focusing on inner-city Los Angeles teens who bond over poetry; "Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest," spotlighting the first Nepalese woman to summit the famed mountain; "Havana Libre," a documentary following efforts to legalize surfing in Cuba — as favorites.

Another documentary premiering at the festival, "Only in Theaters," spotlights moviegoing as it profiles the family behind Los Angeles' Laemmle theater chain.

"It's a beautiful film, and a timely one," Puig notes, adding that the festival will feature a seminar asking whether people have lost the habit of going to the movies.

Durling doesn't believe that's true and sees the Santa Barbara festival — and film festivals in general — as places that help people navigate their way through difficult times.

"Art is there to not only distract and entertain, but it's also the place where people can have a discussion about issues and create a sense of community," Durling says.

Adds Puig: "We've all been sort of hunkered down for the last couple years and we've missed just getting together in communal places. I sense that there's this burning desire for community and a burning desire to celebrate art. You see that in the record number of submissions. It's pent-up."


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