The Sonoma International Film Festival is an essential rite of spring.
One of the attractions of this five-day festival-- where you do spend the better part of your day in the dark-- is its beautiful setting. If you have to stroll from venue to venue (all but one within a block or two of the parklike town square, the Plaza), it might as well be past tempting restaurants, wine and chocolate tasting bars, interesting retailers, and historic buildings -- under sunny skies. Walking around Sonoma, I remembered that last year I named it "the town of good smells": jasmine, roses, citrus, sometimes briefly overwhelmed by garlic, grilled meat, beer.
Within seemingly minutes after leaving the East Bay, you're driving through exquisitely-staked fields of grapevines, climbing up the gentle slopes of the echt-California landscape of golden hills dotted with green oaks. Many of the Sonoma festivalgoers are local, but over the years, the festival has attracted a host of wordly regulars. A pair of festival friends I met last year were making their eleventh annual visit, from Chicago.
This Little Film Festival that Could can change me from a humorless scold who demands perfect screening conditions to a more relaxed one who is happy to perch in a 30-seat pub while those around me consume chicken wings, or a rec room with uncomfortable folding seats, as long as I'm surrounded by an enthusiastic audience and watching something interesting.
At Sonoma, whose logo features a wine glass and grapes as well as a film can and celluloid, there is the added perk of free wine and food (ranging from popcorn through assorted pastries, fresh fruit, and even pasta topped with one of the sponsor's sauces) at almost every venue. And wine and food tastings are on offer all day long in the Backlot Tent on the Square. At one screening, I was delighted to overhear the ticket taker offer filmgoers a glass of wine even before he asked if they had a ticket. Ebullient and omnipresent festival director Kevin McNeely sets the relaxed and hedonistic tone -- his BMW and profile, along with a glass of wine, were featured in the short animated logo film that introduced each screening.
Every film festival needs an identity. Sonoma, with its over 110 films from 22 different countries, does try to be all things to all people. There's a smattering of world cinema titles, this year including "The Great Beauty," this year's foreign film Oscar winner, from Italy; Bertrand Tavernier's "The French Minister," aka "Quai d'Orsay;" "Everything is Fine Here," about a gang-rape in Tehran, Iran; "Siddharth," about a father who fears his son has been taken by child-traffickers, and "Butterfly's Dream," a poetic period piece from Turkey.
Also, a focus on American independent cinema, some of it local -- "Neon Sky," following carnies and shot in Northern California; "Along the Roadside," a buddy comedy also largely shot in the Bay Area; "Roxie," a rueful midlife-crisis story shot in San Francisco -- as well as "I'm Obsessed With You (but you've got to leave me alone)," a quirky coming-of-age story set in NYC and Long Island), and the somewhat-starrier "Brahmin Bulls," with Roshan Seth, the gorgeous Sendhil Ramamurthy, Mary Steenburgen, and Michael Lerner, set in Southern California.