Santa Barbara Film Festival Takes a Walk on the Wild Side : Movies: The event gets more adventurous, with an ambitious mix of movies, seminars and discussions. The showcase starts tonight.


Subtly and unwittingly, Japanese film director Masato Harada has pushed the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in the direction of change. His art film “Painted Desert” opens the 10-day festival tonight in a world premiere--a marked departure of the past two years, when less challenging, if perhaps more crowd-pleasing, HBO films kicked things off.

For those who handle festival programming, the shift was pure serendipity: Last December, Harada, maker of seven feature films in Japan but a relative unknown here, had simply walked into the festival’s downtown Santa Barbara offices and handed over a tape.

“Maybe somebody could look at my movie?” he had asked Phyllis de Picciotto, artistic director of the festival. She did. And loved it.

“I didn’t know him,” she recalls. “Didn’t even know of him. But we’re here for discovery, and this film is it: It’s about discovery.”

It’s about many things, actually: an odd patchwork of people, some of them American gangsters and others Japanese cooks, all fugitives of sorts from their own troubled postwar lives. The setting? A desert cafe in the American West serving hideous pork chops as well as inspired, visually dazzling sushi. Yes, these people settle histories, form incongruous bonds. But no, their redemption is not neat.


Harada, an acolyte of “Red River’s” Howard Hawks, clearly has taken on large and multiple agendas on a small and singular film budget. As a result, “Painted Desert” is more work than usual for the viewer--a far cry from last year’s opener, the gentle “The Last of His Tribe” and, the year before that, the boilerplate “Josephine Baker Story.”

But its kickoff scheduling shows real calculation on Harada’s part.

“I was just looking for the perfect place for a world premiere,” he says, seated comfortably in Santa Barbara’s El Encanto Hotel, overlooking the harbor. “And this town, this is a place to eat and think.”

Over the next 10 days that indubitably will be the case. The festival, now in its eighth year, has from the start struggled to etch an artistic and civic identity in a town blessed with beauty and good restaurants but contained somewhat by a limited yet distinct anti-tourist sentiment. Moreover, the city has invested more heavily in its larger and older celebrations such as Fiesta and Summer Solstice.

Santa Barbara may remain a happy place to view films--last year’s festival attracted more than 25,000 people, the most ever--but one in which film promoters struggle to gain the unbridled momentum and growth that has put festivals at Toronto, Berlin and Telluride out front. Still, there have been real artistic successes, as in last year’s prize-winning “The Quarrel,” the tale of two philosophically opposed Holocaust survivors; and screenings of “Enchanted April” and “The Hairdresser’s Husband,” among numerous strong documentaries. This year marks an ambitious mix of films, seminars and panel discussions. While artistic director De Picciotto pridefully characterizes the programming as more “populist” and mainstream than it is designed “for critics,” a wide range in subject and treatment is evident from among the more than 90 films--features, documentaries, shorts--to be screened.

Here are a few of the programs; all single-film tickets are $7 unless otherwise noted:

Tonight: “Painted Desert,” world premiere, Arlington Theatre, 8 p.m. (a reception is scheduled at 6:30 p.m., $25 admission, film included; film only, $10).

Saturday: An “Evening With” discussion with French director Bertrand Tavernier (“ ‘Round Midnight” and, in this festival, his West Coast premiere of “L.627"), Fiesta Five, 6 p.m.; “Joey Breaker,” world premiere, an irreverent look at the life of a talent agent, Fiesta Five, 7:30 p.m.; “Romper Stomper,” a strangely sympathetic look, by an Australian, at Neo-Nazi skinheads, Fiesta Five, 9:15 p.m.

Sunday: “Grey Knight,” world premiere, a Civil War-era psychodrama from George Hickenlooper (“Hearts of Darkness”), in conjunction with “An Evening With” discussion with Corbin Bernsen (“L.A. Law”), Fiesta Five, 5 p.m., $15.

Tuesday: “Sofie,” Liv Ullmann’s directorial debut, a story of a young Jewish woman and a prize winner at the Montreal Film Festival, Fiesta Five, 5:30 p.m.

Wednesday: “Salute to Shelley Winters on the Anniversary of Her 50 Years in the Movies,” with the two-time Academy Award winner present and a screening, at her request, of “Lolita,” Fiesta Five, 7:15 p.m., $20.

March 13: “The Cool Surface,” world premiere, an erotic thriller about a novelist who meets a neighbor, Fiesta Five, 9:15 p.m.

March 14: “Map of the Human Heart,” a love story spanning 30 years and two continents, about an Inuit Eskimo, Paseo Nuevo, 5:30 p.m., $10.

* Tickets through Ticketmaster: (213) 480-3232, (714) 740-2000, (805) 583-8700.

* Tickets in person: Arlington Ticket Agency, 1317 State St., (805) 963-4408.

For complete schedules and information, call the festival hot line: (805) 689-INFO.

Festival headquarters: Graphics Gallery, 1220 State St., open 1-6 p.m. daily.

Assistance in finding accommodations: (800) 678-8785.