By Meredith Brody
Sometimes when I’m at a film festival, I forget to enjoy myself. I’m so focused on seeing as many movies as I can that entire days will be spent entirely in the dark, fueled only by caffeine and hand-held snacks.
Happily, I’ve realized that there are better ways to experience a festival, and the Sonoma International Film Festival was a big part of my education. Sonoma, of course, is home to many of California’s best wineries, and I still remember the time I was offered a glass of wine at one of my first Festival screenings – before they even asked me for my ticket!
The Festival is set in a number of venues around Sonoma’s beautiful and historic park and town square, itself ringed with intriguing restaurants and shops. A walk from one venue to another not only exposes you to numerous temptations of consumption, but also beautiful plantings and lush gardens. Years ago a friend of mine referred to New York as “the City of Bad Smells;” every year I think of Sonoma as the City of Good Smells. Sonoma’s relaxed charms never fail to induce a feeling of dolce far niente in me.
And there’s something for everyone in the Festival’s programming: foreign films, American productions including major releases — such as opening-night film The Promise, starring Oscar Isaacs and Christian Bale in a period love triangle, and Dreamworks Animations The Boss Baby, which will fill the historic Sebastiani Theater on Saturday morning — as well as independent productions, and a strong documentary lineup with a special emphasis on culinary films.
Among the most intriguing films set for the twentieth edition are a number of World Cinema entries, including Thomas Vinterberg’s award-winning The Commune, inspired by his childhood in Denmark, which has been making its way around the festival circuit; acclaimed Polish director Andrej Wajda’s last film, Afterimage, based on a Polish painter who refused to change his art to suit Communist doctrine; Cezanne et Moi, a French biopic about the artist’s friendship with Emile Zola, by Daniel Thompson; Nelly, a Canadian film about the racy and self-destructive writer Nelly Arcan, by Anne Amond; and Tunnel, a tense Korean film about a man trapped in an underground landslide, by Kim Seong-Hun.
This year, many of the American Indies are directed by women, such as Kepler’s Dream, a young girl’s coming-of-age story, which screens with San Francisco-based theater and film director Amy Glazer and star Kelly Lynch in attendance.
In A Woman, A Part director Elisabeth Subrinan tells the story of an actress who decides to reinvent herself; acclaimed director Bronwen Hughes’ The Journey is the Destination, is a fictional look at young journalist Dan Eldon, whose brief life has inspired both books and documentary films; June Falling Down, a romcom set in Wisconsin, directed by and starring Rebecca Weaver; and Quaker Oaths, a divorce comedy in which the unhappy couple must track down everyone who attended their wedding, by Louisiana Kreutz.
Among the other unknown-quantity films of the Festival, I’m especially intrigued by In Search of Fellini, on the strength of its title, synopsis (a young Midwestern woman travels to Italy after seeing La Strada to meet its director), and cast member Maria Bello. Handsome Devil is about a friendship between two young boys at boarding school, which won best Irish feature from the Dublin Critic’s Circle.
A French film, Julie and the Shoe Factory, aka Footnotes, sounds stylish and fun–women call a strike but with a half-dozen musical numbers. And inevitably a title that is not yet on my radar will fit into my schedule and surprise me.
Among the strengths of Sonoma’s program are its documentary section, which includes such diverse titles as the jazz film Chasing Trane, exploring the life and music of bebop saxophonist John Coltrane; Everybody Knows…Elizabeth Murray, about the famed New York painter; and Franca: Chaos and Creation, a fascinating and disturbing look at the iconoclastic editor of Italian Vogue, Franca Sozzani, directed by her son Francesco Carrozini.
But its main (and delicious) focus is the culinary documentary: this year’s dazzling array is sure to make you hungry, whether you’re watching The Chocolate Case about a group of journalists in search of making a delicious chocolate bar that does not finance slavery and child labor; or drinking in A Year in Port where renowned wine importer Martine Saunier takes us on a journey into Portugal’s spectacular Douro Valley to explore the mystery and complexity of the world of port.
Goddesses of Food examines women chefs including San Francisco’s two-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn, Barbara Lynch of Boston and food entrepreneurs from around the world. Courses explores the first year in business of a Chicago restaurant, 42 Grams, which now holds two Michelin stars.
James Beard: America’s First Foodie examines the life of one of our most beloved food writers and chefs. Sour Grapes, a real-life story that plays like a thriller, unveils a sad story of suspect wine connoisseurship.
The Theater of Life follows master chef Massimo Bottura as he brings some of the world’s great culinary artists to Italy for an experiment in feeding the needy with leftovers. It has inspired viewers to get involved in food programs in their own communities.
Tuna, Farofa, and Spaghetti reveals the diverse roots of three Brazilian chefs in France, Italy, and Japan. In The Turkish Way the Roca brothers, master cuisiniers of Barcelona’s El Cellar de Can Roca, go on an excursion into the ancient and modern worlds of Turkey to discover the cuisine and wines of the region, while creating a “New Turkish Cuisine” with local chefs.
A high energy Chinese fiction drama closes the Festival. Cook Up A Storm focuses on a culinary competition that becomes a battleground as a famous Cantonese street-food chef goes up against his Michelin-starred, classically trained rival. When they discover a common foe the two combine their emotions and culinary skills, fusing East and West to unite against a the enemy.
Most films screen more than once and you can easily make full days of culinary movies by seeing three on Friday, Saturday and/or Sunday and have time to eat and drink and even take a stroll.
Luckily, within steps of exiting the Sonoma International Film Festival’s venues, you can find restaurants, bars, pubs, sandwich shops, and grocers that can satisfy your hungers and thirsts.
And do make sure you see a film in the vintage Sebastiani Theatre right on the delightful town square.
The complete schedule and alphabetical list with screening times can be found and downloaded here.
Meredith Brody, a graduate of both the Paris Cordon Bleu cooking school and USC film school, has been the restaurant critic for, among others, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and SF Weekly, and has written for countless film magazines and websites including Cahiers du Cinema, Film Comment, and Indiewire. Her writings on books, theater, television, and travel have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Interview. She also contributes an occasional column to EatDrinkFilms called “Meals with Meredith,” where she talks about food and film with filmmakers at restaurants in northern California, writes about vintage cocktails and where she eats during film festivals at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.