San Sebastian 2023: The Verdict

VERDICT: This year's San Sebastian was a sunny festival filled with discoveries.

Warm weather and sunny beaches set an upbeat, no-problems tone for San Sebastian this year, one of the key European events on the big-festivals calendar. Though it tends to be overlooked by North Americans due to falling right after Venice and Toronto — fests that program a number of the same buzzy fall art house titles — it is the most relaxed of the three and a must-be-there for Spanish language cinema.

Almost every screening played to packed houses where press, industry and paying audiences mingled. And it was sweet satisfaction to see director Victor Erice being wildly feted by festival audiences, who gave the Basque master filmmaker the acclaim he was denied at Cannes, where his new film about memory and identity Close Your Eyes inexplicably premiered out of competition. “Cinema has given me and people of my generation, in times of misery and lack of freedom, the ability to become citizens of the world for a few hours,” said Erice at his press conference.

One of San Sebastian’s most attractive features in these post-Covid years has been the intelligent way the festival, which has been directed by José Luis Rebordinas since 2011, has created a ticketing system for press that actually works. Most international press are able to select all their festival tickets in a 36-hour window several days before the event begins, and with five screenings of each film in every section, there is a good chance of switching tickets as the festival shapes up with buzz later in the week. In addition, tickets are automatically loaded onto your press or industry badge, and as long as you have a record of your seat assignment, there is no need for the smart phone scramble at the venue entrance. After the frustrations of systems that create negativity and even anger around festivals before they even start, San Sebastian is a model that should be studied and followed.

Though the main competition (“Official Selection”) was not limited to world premieres and a number of titles were already familiar, the overall selection felt carefully put together, with plenty of discoveries for dedicated journalists and critics. The main jury presided by director Claire Denis chose The Rye Horn (O Corno) as its Golden Shell winner, a beautifully shot if traditional art film by Spanish director Jaione Camborda, it talked about women’s bodies and women’s right to choice in a moving film of great physicality. The San Sebastian-born Camborda is the fourth woman director in a row to win San Sebastian’s best film award, which speaks to the festival’s continuing attention to gender on and off screen. (Previous winners were Laura Mora’s 2022 The Kings of The World, Alina Grigore’s Blue Moon in 2021 and Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning in 2020.)

Going home this year without major awards were two other extraordinary films directed by women that should show up at festivals this winter. One of the most popular with critics and audiences was the animated feminist fantasy Sultana’s Dream, directed by Isabel Herguera and inspired by Bengali feminist thinker Rokeya Hossain and her 1905 story about Ladyland, a country run by women. Centered around a modern young woman animator backpacking between Spain and India, it speaks examines the state of fear women are subjected to by men, irrespective of time and place.

Another insightful look at women’s lives was Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, the director’s emotionally enveloping impression of growing up female in rural Mississippi. Reaching back over multiple generations, it uses atmosphere rather than conventional narration to show how a woman’s identity is created from many different influences.

The Rye Horn, Sultana’s Dream and All Dirt Roads led a very notable revival of outspoken feminist themes, a trend also visible in some of the best entries in the Horizontes Latinos sidebar. These included Mexican directors like Tatiana Huezo, whose The Echo describes a girl living in a remote village, and Lila Avilés’s intimate, impeccably directed Totem about a seven-year-old girl. The winner of the Horizontes award, The Castle, was another film about independent femmes. It is director Martin Benchimol’s amusing portrait of an Argentine housekeeper who inherits her employer’s mansion in the remote pampa, where she lives with her daughter who is bent on a career as a race car driver.

Another buzzy feminist-area title that will be opening commercially soon is Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotela timely, gripping nerve-jangler about two young Canadian women battling predatory men and toxic masculinity in the Australian outback. Surprisingly, the thriller-like story is firmly grounded in real events, as captured in Pete Gleeson’s harrowing 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie.

The theme of trans children seeking to establish their identity in a uncomprehending world continued this year in films like the fascinating 20,000 Species of Bees, which bowed in Berlin where young star Sofia Otero won the Silver Bear for best leading performance, and the Horizontes title Toll, in which Kauan Alvarenga gave a mature performance as a drag-loving teen who sings in a nightclub, much to his working class mom’s horror. On the other end of the spectrum, two titles in the main competition dealt meaningfully with child abuse. Belgian director Joachim Lafosse’s upper middle class drama A Silence featured Daniel Auteuil as a respected lawyer and a secret consumer of child pornography, enabled by the silence of his wife Emmanuelle Devos.  And Sweden’s Isabella Eklöf’ won the Special Jury Prize for Kalak, an emotionally wrenching drama starring Emil Johnsen as a Danish nurse on the run from his traumatic childhood and  sexually abusive father. Settling in Greenland with his wife and children, he goes into a self-destructive spiral of drug addiction and messy sexual entanglements with Greenlandic women. Nadim Carlsen’s ravishing cinematography also won a Jury Prize in San Sebastian.

A winning trend that one hopes will continue was the appearance of quality adult animation throughout the sections. Apart from the delightfully imaginative Sultana’s Dream (which deserved much more than the Iriza Basque Film Award), the festival opened with The Boy and the Heron from Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. Purported to be the 82-year-old animator’s final film (his last was The Wind Rises in 2013), this gentle picture reprises the themes of mortality and animal/human interchange that have made his work so popular and deep.

They Shot the Piano Player, an animated docu-fiction hybrid from Spanish directing duo Fernando Trueba and Javier Marisca, is a vibrant, kaleidoscopic love letter to a revolutionary period in Brazilian pop music history. But it also pays sombre tribute to Francisco Tenório Júnior, a much-loved jazz and bossa nova pianist who was cruelly abducted and murdered by the Argentinean military dictatorship in 1976, apparently during a random clampdown against bohemian artist-types with potentially dissident opinions.

Although its playful animation sequences are mostly childish reworkings of the popular Fantômette comic books, Red Island directed by Robin Campillo (120 BPM) is a mostly live action adventure that traces the last days of French colonialism on the island of Madagascar, seen through the eyes of a French boy, but in its final scenes through the quite different perceptions of two Malagasy characters. Amusing, ironic and romantic by turn, this politically spot-on tale was an excellent catch for competition, having come out in France in May without any festival support.

It felt somehow fitting that San Sebastian’s closing gala premiere was Dance First by James Marsh, a playfully stylized biopic of the late Irish literary legend Samuel Beckett, starring Gabriel Byrne. As a pioneer of tragicomic absurdist drama, Beckett still exerts a strong gravitational pull on contemporary screenwriters, notably Charlie Kaufman. Indeed, there were echoes of both Beckett and Kaufman across the festival program this year. Swedish director Niklas Larsson’s Mother, Couch! plunged Ewan McGregor, Ellen Burstyn, Taylor Russell and more into an increasingly surreal family crisis, while Christos Nikou’s Fingernails, a charmingly bizarre lo-fi sci-fi rom-com starring Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed, won the independent FIPRESCI prize in San Sebastian.