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The opening scene of "Burning Days," one of the 124 feature films screening at the 42nd annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, shows two people peering into a giant sinkhole that may have been caused by a shady water-diversion scheme.

"How do you find it, Prosecutor?" the judge asks.

"It's scary," he answers.

"But beautiful," she responds.

Some might use those adjectives to describe the world today.

Scary, since the jarring geopolitical, global health, economic and ecological tremors seem to shake ever more menacingly.

But beautiful, because despite these seismic shifts, a common humanity can still unite.

"I most often think about our festival as a way for us to get out of our place and have our eyes opened to the bigger world out there," said Susan Smoluchowski, executive director of MSP Film Society, the organization behind the April 13-27 event (sponsored in part by the Star Tribune) held mostly at the Main Cinema in Minneapolis.

"Although so many of the films are about the differences between what we experience in our day-to-day lives here in Minnesota," Smoluchowski said, "every single film that we show during this festival has some kind of connection to the world that we live in."

Including rural Turkey, the setting for "Burning Days," a film noir that acts as an allegory of many of the challenges vexing the country, as well as more universal questions of identity, which along with "a sense of place" are among the themes permeating this year's films, said Smoluchowski. "I don't know if COVID and the pandemic is a factor in the way people are thinking about storytelling these days, but if feels very prominent, this idea that we have our place in life and our identity, and when it shifts it can create tension."

There's plenty of tension in "Burning Days," particularly between the young, big-city prosecutor and the enduring rural ways of the locals in the small Turkish town he's assigned to. (There's been tension between the filmmakers and the government, too, because of implied LGBTQ themes that don't square with Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which helped fund the award-winning movie.)

While the story — especially the denouement — are enigmatic, one thing's for certain: The film's complexity isn't what's usually at the Cineplex.

"There's nothing formulaic in any of the films that we show," said Smoluchowski. "The great wonder of our festival is that it doesn't do any of that; it gets back to the essence of the beauty of storytelling."

Hollywood storytelling can be strong, too, especially with high-risk/high-reward films like Oscar-winner "Everything Everywhere All at Once." But increasingly it's franchise films (and their inevitable sequels) that are top box office — often because some of them are great, or at minimum great escapism, like Marvel movies, which were the top-grossing films six of the last 10 years.

So far this year, however, it's more Super Mario than superheroes selling tickets, with last week's release of "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" setting a stunning record for the opening of an animated film by bringing in $377.5 million worldwide. With the popcorn-movie the most popular in 63 of the 71 countries tracked by Box Office Mojo, industry insiders predict it could eventually gross $1 billion.

"There continues to be a divergence between big-budget Hollywood films targeted at global mass popular audiences and the international art cinemas targeted at festival, niche and college audiences," Carol Donelan, a professor of cinema and media studies at Carleton College, said in an email interview. "The current trend in the international art cinemas is toward 'slow cinema,' exactly the opposite of antic Hollywood blockbusters. It's as if the international art cinemas are wanting to offer a calming antidote to amped-up Hollywood spectacles. The international art films are contemplative, ambiguous, slow moving, premised on long takes, not much narrative. It's up to the viewer to fill in the gaps, construct the meaning from the ambiguous cues."

And yet, sometimes serendipitous convergence can create crossover appeal — and Oscar contenders, and even winners.

"I don't think the Hollywood films are necessarily crowding out the art films," said Donelan. "There are audiences for both kinds of films. I suppose the sweet spot is when you can attract both audiences — those with popular tastes and those with high-art tastes."

Donelan cited 2020 Best Picture "Parasite" as a "perfect example" of "an international art film that attracted viewers who like a popular genre, horror. 'The Power of the Dog' is another good example. Filmmaker Jane Campion essentially turned a Hollywood western into an art film. The international art cinemas seem to be drawing upon and reinventing popular Hollywood genre films."

The impact of international cinema is enriching for moviegoers, and for cross-cultural understanding in general. Indeed, "there's so much value to the stories we bring here," said Smoluchowski.

And sometimes there's so much value in the way the stories bring people together. After Saturday's screening of "Burning Days," for instance, local organizers will provide information about ways to help victims of the devastating earthquakes that hit portions of Turkey and Syria in February.

"In an era where we are being led into a divisive mode, the great value of experiencing these stories from around the world is that I think they unite," said Smoluchowski. "We want our films to unite, inform and transform. And, frankly, for us to remain true to ourselves in terms of the integrity of the human race, we have to understand other people from around the world. And the more we know another person's story, the less likely we are to dislike them or even hate them. Because there's so much in everyone's stories that is relatable."

Especially the stories screening the next two weeks — whether they show the world as scary, or beautiful, or both.