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At Middleburg, the pandemic pause yields a crop of thoughtful, deeply personal movies

Kenneth Branagh at a screening of his film “Belfast” at the 2021 Middleburg Film Festival. (Shannon Finney)

“We’re back,” Sheila Johnson proclaimed as she greeted a packed ballroom at her Salamander Resort and Spa on Oct. 14, the opening night of the Middleburg Film Festival.

The evening’s film, “King Richard,” starring Will Smith as tennis patriarch Richard Williams (father of Venus and Serena), officially kicked off Middleburg’s ninth edition. But in many ways, it marked a whole new beginning after nearly two years of shutdowns, postponements, scuttled plans and cancellations.

Middleburg weathered the upheavals with ingenuity last year, shifting screenings to a drive-in screen at the 340-acre resort’s sprawling parking lot, and showing other movies on an inflatable screen on the generous back lawn. The festival kept the drive-in this year, but it also welcomed viewers back inside, albeit with strict pandemic-era protocols: Attendees were required to show proof of vaccination and a negative covid test within the past 72 hours.

In part, such precautions were a prerequisite for attracting talent — this year’s celebrity guests included actors Dakota Johnson (there with her partner, Chris Martin) and Ann Dowd, and filmmakers Kenneth Branagh, Paolo Sorrentino and Sean Baker — but also for reassuring festival regulars eager to get back to a semblance of normalcy. “We wanted everyone to feel comfortable and safe,” said executive director Susan Koch. “That was really a top priority.”

That included capping advance-pass sales and capacity at screenings, which took place in the Salamander’s main ballroom as well as the nearby Hill School and Middleburg Community Center. But those limitations did not extend to the program, which featured 34 films, only one fewer than two years ago.

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Nor did pandemic-era strictures have an effect on quality: Koch and Connie White, Middleburg’s astute and tireless head programmer, managed to score many of this year’s hottest awards contenders, including “King Richard,” Branagh’s tender coming-of-age memoir “Belfast,” Fran Kranz’s searing chamber piece “Mass,” Pablo Larrain’s Princess Diana biopic “Spencer,” Mike Mills’s uncle-nephew road picture “C’mon, C’mon,” Rebecca Hall’s period drama “Passing,” Jane Campion’s 1920s western “The Power of the Dog,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s impressive directorial debut “The Lost Daughter” and Joe Wright’s daring adaptation of the stage musical “Cyrano,” featuring Peter Dinklage in a breathtaking performance as the title character.

This year’s program featured several films that were made over the past year and a half, many of them — as in the case of Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket,” which received an ensemble cast award — the product of directors dusting off old projects and deciding the time was right to make them.

“We’d been in national lockdown for nearly four months when on the 28th of June 2020 I received the latest draft [of Erica Schmidt’s script], which I’d been developing for two years,” Wright said in a video introduction to “Cyrano.” He recalled immediately telling one of the film’s producers, “It’s ready, we have to do this now.” Four months later, he gathered his crew and cast — which included Haley Bennett, Ben Mendelsohn and Kelvin Harrison Jr. — in Noto, Italy, where most of the filming took place.

“In times of crisis, we as storytellers have a responsibility to gather our community, large or small, around the proverbial campfire, and try to help them heal,” Wright continued. “On that June day in 2020, as we sat in isolation, it seemed to me that what we needed most was simple human connection.”

The interregnum posed by covid also clearly gave artists time to allow deep-seated memories to float to the surface, and to sit with what emerged: No sooner had Middleburg audiences seen Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God,” a largely autobiographical serio-comedy set in his native Naples, than they were watching Pedro Almodóvar’s magnificent “Parallel Mothers,” a delicious melodrama plumbing the depths of personal and political histories — followed by Branagh’s “Belfast,” a largely autobiographical serio-comedy set in his native northern Ireland.

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“I listened,” Branagh said while introducing the film, explaining how he started the project after ruminating about it for 50 years. “And I wrote down what I heard.”

In “Belfast,” Branagh revisits his childhood in the early 1960s, when sectarian violence between Irish Unionists and Republicans spilled into his once-safe-and-secure street. “I guess you’d call it staring into the silence,” he observed during a post-screening Q&A, recalling how he allowed himself to hear the sounds and voices of his youth that pervade the film. “In my case, it was while I was walking the dog at the beginning of lockdown and looking up at the sky and thinking, ‘There are no planes, that’s why it’s quiet.’ I was hearing bird songs I’d never heard before, and all these other sounds came in.”

Other emotions were at play as well, he added. “What I’d reentered in lockdown was . . . this other lockdown I had experienced, where the same thing had kicked in instantly — this deep, all-prevailing sense of being unsettled. The ground beneath our feet had shifted. . . . It just seemed important to try to value and appreciate that with which you have been blessed to be part of and to have experienced, and to perhaps not only revisit it but try to understand, and hope that the act of sharing it would bring the possibility of bringing other people understanding as well.”

“Belfast” wound up winning Middleburg’s audience award, along with the documentary “The Rescue,” about the 12 boys who were trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand in 2018. It was a fitting culmination of a festival that, for all it celebratory spirit, was tinged with a shared sense of reflection, personal reckoning and a new sense of priorities.

“I think we’ve all been through a profound time, some of it more difficult for some than others,” said Koch, who added that the past year and a half “maybe gave filmmakers the time to think about what was most important, and to make that film. . . . It almost afforded them the time to say, ‘If I’m going to do something, I’m going to make something that’s really important to me.’ ”

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