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UP THE COAST: Ventura County

Reel Tradition

After 12 years, the Santa Barbara film festival has become an annual artistic rite, welcoming entries from around the world.


The flags tell all.

Pinkish flags, sporting strips of celluloid and palm trees--symbol of Santa Barbaran leisure--have been flapping freely along State Street for the past few weeks. It happens every year around this time, as a reminder that film festival time is at hand.

It has become a perennial sight, a local harbinger of spring. And it has happened often enough now to qualify as a tradition.

Twelve years ago, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival was born out of a marriage of commerce and art. It started out with grand ideals and hopes for the future, at a time when recessionary squeamishness and smart money were making conservatism a byword.

Drawing on the hotel tax fund, designed to lure tourists to town in the off-season, the festival was launched by a board of directors spearheaded by film programmer Phyllis DePiccioto. By the second year, fractious relations among the board left people wondering about the festival's survival, but it has prevailed through thick and fiscal thin.

Maybe a film festival was inevitable here. Santa Barbara has always fancied itself a film town at a comfortable distance from tinsel town, a place where actors and other filmmakers settle down or escape to, and sometimes do location shooting.

Since the festival's founding, the whole culture of film festivals has changed, as they have proliferated around the country, and indeed the world. A roundup in the Los Angeles Times last month logged in 250 festivals in 1997.

Film festivals are cropping up in the strangest places, sometimes with specialist angles. Take, for example, the G-rated family film festival that was held last month for the third time in Santa Clarita.

This means stiffer competition, in one way, but it also confers seniority status on a festival such as Santa Barbara's, which has weathered more than a decade of life, and this year has added an extra day. The opening film for tonight's opening gala is "Roseanna's Grave," an American-Italian co-production starring Mercedes Ruehl and Jean Reno.

The Santa Barbara event is, true to the "international" in its title, a worldly little festival, and the international selections are generally a cut above the U.S. independent entries, at least from a preview sampling of 30 films. Too many of the U.S. films, instead of heeding any inventive indie muse, follow a glib, narcissistic tactic and come across as destined-for-cable fare.

Among the better ones are "small time," a comically gritty number about low-life thugs waiting on the outskirts for . . . something, and "Guy." The latter boasts a unique stylistic spin on its twisted love story, told through hand-held subjective shots.

On the other hand, there is plenty to celebrate among the foreign films. Austrian entries have been among the strongest in the last few festivals, and the Austrian "Hannah" is an affecting treatise on the dangers of fascism, against the seemingly innocent backdrop of a doll company.

Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos' "Ulysses' Gaze" is a slow, three-hour-plus opus in which Harvey Keitel stars, ostensibly wandering through Greece and the strife-torn Balkans for lost footage of early Greek filmmakers. It's actually an extended existential brood with a hypnotic beauty, like much of Angelopoulos' work.

A new print of Jacques Demy's effervescent 1961 new wave classic "Lola," which preceded the musical "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" both logically and chronologically, is well worth a look. "Kolya," the Golden Globe foreign-film winner, is a sweet Czech tale about a cellist and his latent parental instinct. The fine Australian director Paul Cox ("Vincent") will be represented with his latest film, "Lust and Revenge."

There are intriguing documentaries on the schedule, too, including the quirky and surprisingly profound "Hands on a Hard Body" and the wistful look at train-hopping, "Riding the Rails." These films examine the American experience from distinctive perspectives.

In a festival that has been known to attract large audiences, getting in can be an art in itself. Individual tickets for films are available for $7.50, but those patrons are lower in the admission hierarchy than pass-holders.

One popular option is to purchase the Eight Greats Pass at $60, offering holders priority seating. There are more lavish options, such as the $225 Full Festival Pass, which gives festgoers carte blanche to all screenings and selected events, and the $400 Gold Pass, which gives entree to all screenings and events.

Each year, the festival does an admirable job importing participants in the film industry to participate in tributes or seminars, and this year's roster is especially strong. All the "Salute to" events take place at the Fiesta Five and include audience Q&A sessions after screenings with the celebrity guests.

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