The magic of cinema is alive at the Stockholm Film Festival

in 33rd Stockholm International Film Festival

by Rita Di Santo

Films that are windows on the world and make us reflect, films that challenge our perspective and pique our curiosity for fresh ideas and viewpoints.

The 33rd edition of the Stockholm International Film Festival was held from the 9th to the 20th of November. After two gruelling years of pandemic, the festival and its audience came back united. Showing more than 150 films, ranging from tense thrillers to quirky drama, arty film montages, moving documentaries, and horror stories. Many were from established filmmakers, but there were also many first films from budding filmmakers.

The festival is centred around Skandia Theatre. With its neoclassical foyer, atmospheric lobby and wonderful interior design, the Skandia is a little gem of a movie place and one of the most beautiful in the world. Designed by Gunnar Asplund, chief architect of several Stockholm landmarks, its quintessentially Scandinavian ambiance creates its own mood and atmosphere before you sit down to watch. The Stockholm International Film Festival uses the venue every November for a host of red-carpet screenings and events.

This year’s programme was clearly carefully chosen by people who know what they are about. It was composed almost entirely of movies from other festivals, many of them already awarded prizes. With 60 countries featured, it was also a global event, with a great percentage from female directors, bringing films that are windows on the world, that make us reflect, films that challenge our perspective and pique our curiosity for fresh ideas and viewpoints.

This year the festival put the spotlight on the conflicts in Ukraine and Iran, screening several projects from both countries, as well as organizing a demonstration against Iran’s imprisonment of directors and persecution of women. 

Moreover, this year’s FIPRESCI award went unanimously to an Iranian movie, World War III by Houman Seyyedi, a very original and imaginative feature film. In a style which is direct, accessible, and unflinching, it is a timely and distinctive piece of filmmaking combining skilful storytelling with striking visuals and strong performances to powerful and moving effect.

World War III aside, there were many other films that surely deserved attention in the Open Zone section. Among them Nostalgia by Italian director Mario Martone. Felice, the protagonist of Nostalgia, returns to his hometown to visit his elderly mother, while trying to reconnect to a friend of his childhood, Oreste, once like a brother, but now the feared Camorra boss of the neighbourhood. Set in Naples, the film reviews the city and the dynamics of criminal organization with fresh eyes, focusing on a central character who is the anti-criminal par excellence: a faithful friend, devoted son, well-educated and gifted with both integrity and honesty. It excels as a finely structured allegory about Italy and Italians, mainly because of its care and refusal to indulge its audience with either sentiment or melodrama.

One of the most intriguing films of the festival was undoubtedly Korean director Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave (Heojil kyolshim), a sensational black-widow noir romance, with a mysterious woman whose husband’s body has been found at the bottom of a well-known climbing rock. Did he fall? Did he take his own life? Or did his wife kill him? Thrilling international audiences, the narrative structure of this movie forks in fascinating directions, being at the same time intricate, and logical. Park Chan-wook works with the finest of needles to produce remarkable tension and atmosphere.

Also, the programme boasts the latest from Sam Mendes. Empire of Light is a film that breathes new life into the “love letter to the movies” genre, with an impeccable screenplay and an outstanding performance by Olivia Colman who plays Hilary, a cinema manager in Margate in 1981, as Mrs Thatcher’s Britain slides into recession and she herself suffers from depression. Her boss (Colin Firth) is an arrogant bore, and her life seems stagnant, but then a new ticket seller starts work at the venue and a connection develops between them. Despite an age gap, love seems to sparkle, but the reality of life is harsher. Undoubtedly, a bit sugary, whole-hearted, this gentle movie acquires an excellent thickness, subtly touching on themes of racial brutality of England in the 80s and mental illness. But the movie also recalls a time when the cinema had relevance, where audience was fluvial, and the mayor of the city used to attend the premieres together with local celebrities. The list of good movies at this year’s Stockholm Film Festival, can become very long. I like to stop here. With Empire of Light.

I watched this film not on streaming on my laptop, or in a small screening room, or by myself, but at the fascinating Skandia Theatre with an audience, and because of these surroundings the vision become more magical, more human. As Ingmar Bergman said “Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls”. This is more real when we are in a movie theatre.

All these stories make us look at the world with different eyes. How to discover a new map of emotions, intimate and private. Very private. The Stockholm Festival has been able to encompass and embrace these titles. Film of a new humanism.

Rita Di Santo