Karlovy Vary Film Festival Delivers Cinema and Glamour, With a Side of Goulash

Central European comfort food shares the stage with international arthouse films in the long-running Czech Republic festival

Karlovy Vary 2017
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Opening night at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is one of the social events of the season. This year, of the Czech Republic’s biggest cultural and political figures walked the red carpet, dressed to the nines and hobnobbing with American actors Casey Affleck and Uma Thurman. It was a glitzy affair, not unlike many other galas, save for one major difference: Once the opening-night film, “The Big Sick,” let out, everyone lined up for a heaping plate of goulash.

And that indelible image – high society in their finest eveningwear, juggling flutes of champagne and hearty platters of comfort food – just about summed the experience at Karlovy Vary, which began in 1946 and this year celebrated its 52nd edition.

The festival, which opened on June 30 and runs through July 8, is the biggest event of its type in central Europe and one of the major festivals in Europe, uniting international auteurs, big name actors and flashy financiers for a weeklong celebration in a postcard Bohemia town. But for all of its heft, the festival has a remarkably homey atmosphere.

Like a satisfying portion of warm stew and pillowy dumplings, it feels gratifyingly unpretentious.

That welcoming feeling has turned a number of film-folk into perpetual returnees. Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa is one such example. He’s no stranger to the circuit, having premiered his film “Austerlitz” in Venice last year and “A Gentle Creature” in Cannes this past May. Though “Austerlitz” is playing in Karlovy Vary this year, Loznitsa came to the festival with a different set of intentions.

This festival, he told TheWrap, is “a cherry on the cake for my year. Venice and Cannes are for work — here, I relax!”

That’s a sentiment shared by many of his contemporaries who end returning time and again, thanks in part to a vast selection that includes around 150 films. Though the festival programmers reserve three competition sections for world and international premieres, they fill the numerous non-competitive slots with notable titles from Sundance, Berlin, and Cannes, turning the Bohemian event into a modest sized festival of festivals.

That’s a welcome relief for a director like Loznitsa, who said he spent his entire Cannes shuffling between professional and promotional obligations, and only had enough downtime to eat and change clothes. In Karlovy Vary, he had time to do something that would have been impossible in May: Once our conversation ended, he was off to catch some movies.

For director Jonas Carpignano, festivals like Karlovy Vary not only offer him the chance to explore other directors — they allow him to see his own work in a new light. When “A Ciambra” premiered at Cannes, he was there physically, but he wasn’t ‘there’ mentally.

“I was wondering if the volume was too low, and worrying about the cast,” he explains. But in Karlovy Vary, he was able to sit down, relax and discover his film alongside the audience.

The New York-born, Calabria-based filmmaker is already well-known figure in festival-land. The boisterous 33-year-old has won numerous prizes and toured extensively with his two shorts and two features, all of them set in the same Calabrese town, and all them formally audacious mixes of documentary and neo-realist fiction.

Carpignano has a fascinating approach, taking real-life figures and having them dramatize their lives. Though the films are scripted in advance, he works with his actors – all of them playing themselves – to hit their beats naturally. His films are set in the small town where he lives, with side-characters from one film becoming the leads of the next. In world where Marvel reigns supreme, he’s created a wholly different kind of shared cinematic universe.

“A Ciambra” attracted the support of Martin Scorsese, who signed on as executive producer and offered notes in the editing room. The film took top honors at Director’s Fortnight sidebar at Cannes and sold to IFC Films, who are looking to release it this autumn.

But the festival circuit can be a little too insular for Carpignano’s liking. “Yes, there are civilians,” he told TheWrap. “But it’s mainly people who do this for a living. You come to Karlovy Vary and there are students there.

“The bubble in Cannes creates energy around some things that later fall down, and some things that go unnoticed end up exploding. When you’re out of the big bang, it’s great to go to a festival and see what sticks.

“You see the films that are continuing to play and you realize how the real world responds to the movies that are out there. That’s one thing I really appreciate about this festival.”

Karlovy Vary offered a number of worldwide premieres as well, and a successful berth can launch a film towards greater renown. That certainly seems the case with “The Cakemaker,” which is without a doubt the buzziest title playing in competition this year.

The German/Israeli production received a standing ovation so long and impassioned that director Ofir Raul Graizer still seemed shell-shocked hours after the film’s Tuesday screening. The festival’s artistic director, Karel Och, corroborated that response, tweeting a video of the ovation and calling it “unforgettable.” Speaking to TheWrap on Thursday, Och said that he had never seen anything like it.

Check in with any random festivalgoer, and you’d good reason to believe him. People have been responding in droves to this delicate melodrama about a German baker Thomas, who falls quickly and passionately in love with a visiting Israeli businessman Oran. When Oran suddenly dies, Thomas heads to Israel to meet his lover’s wife Anat, who of course had no idea that her husband was seeing another man.

The film expertly treats questions of identity, forgiveness, and the weight of secrets. It was a labor of love for all involved. You can never tell what might move the jury, so let’s abstain from any award prognostication for the time being, But we can say this with certainty: One way or another, Graizer and crew will leave this festival knowing that they’ve got a film that plays.

That might be the greatest honor Karlovy Vary can offer.