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"Sing Sing," the true story of an innocent incarcerated in New York's Sing Sing prison who finds meaning by belonging to a theater group, opened the 43rd Annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival on Thursday.

"Ghostlight," which closes the festival on April 25, is about a sorrowful construction worker who finds meaning in joining a local theater production of "Romeo and Juliet."

In between, 238 films from 70 countries and cultures will screen, including "The Movie Teller," about María Margarita, a girl growing up in a Chilean mining town in the 1960s whose family also finds meaning — and connection to the outside world — in art by going to the movies every Sunday. When her father is impoverished by a mining accident, the family can afford only one ticket a week. After her three older brothers get a tryout recounting a film to the family, María gets her turn and shows an extraordinary ability to retell the films. Her preternatural performances — a gift, really — soon spread beyond her family to the entire village, altering her family's fate at the same time Chile is changing dramatically, too.

In fact, the second half of the film takes a darker turn, just as Chile did after a CIA-aided coup deposed democratically elected Socialist Salvador Allende to usher in Augusto Pinochet's presidency, or dictatorship — history the fictional film explores. This kind of political backdrop to a personal story is sometimes found in films at the festival, with this year's slate often particularly focused on individual, inner-life stories, said Susan Smoluchowski, the executive director of the MSP Film Society, which curates the event (sponsored in part by the Star Tribune).

"These three films are about the power of art to change one's perspective," said Smoluchowski. "Every year during the festival a theme tends to emerge kind of organically. We look at films, and we see that one year there are many films about movement of people around the globe. This year, we have seen a lot of films that are perhaps a little bit more introspective, that are about the internal life of people and how cinema or art in general moves us."

The art that moves María and her family is mostly from Hollywood, an exotic locale to the Chilean desert town. But some of the films are their own form of global cinema, including Sergio Leone's "spaghetti western" classic "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," the focus on French wartime justice in "Paths of Glory," and even a French-made musical, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." Interspersed are black-and-white classics like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and "From Here to Eternity," prompting a villager to tell María's proud pop that "this girl narrates black-and-white films as if they were in technicolor and CinemaScope."

Movies themselves can sometimes do the same thing to a world that on its surface can seem black-and-white in its monochromatic mundanity and morality. But in reality, as is often revealed in movies — foreign films especially — the world has much more vivid hues and views, color and complexity. And unlike so many of today's art forms and media experiences, it's still best done in a shared moment.

That mutual movie experience is important to Greg Kwedar, the writer, producer and director of "Sing Sing." Addressing opening-night attendees of his powerful, even profound, film, Kwedar recounted the reaction to just the movie's trailer, which made some emotional. "We're holding on to a lot of these feelings real tight," Kwedar said. "And I think what a movie like this can do, via the courage of the people in the film [including its star, Oscar nominee Colman Domingo and a supporting cast made mostly of formerly incarcerated actors] that you're about to see is it's OK to let that out and let it go. And the best place to do that is in a movie theater, where other people who are doing the same thing as you and me. It's this permission to feel something; that's why we come into these theaters, is to feel more alive, and this is a movie about a group of people who came alive inside a theater and that's what I hope happens to you."

Kwedar's Q&A after the film is just one of many of the festival's special events, like moviemakers attending screenings of their own films, including Rick Goldsmith, director of "Stripped for Parts: American Journalism on the Brink," a documentary about "the story of one secretive hedge fund that is plundering America's newspapers and the journalists who are fighting back." After the Tuesday screening of his film, Goldsmith, as well as KSTP's Kirsten Swanson, the incoming president of the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and Jeff Freeland Nelson, the executive director of the Glen Nelson Center at American Public Media Group, will take part in a panel discussion moderated by Star Tribune Editor and Senior Vice President Suki Dardarian.

That documentary is just one of several, along with dozens of dramas, comedies and shorts. "We want to be a beacon for the celebration of film over here at the Main," said Smoluchowski, referring to the cinema in northeast Minneapolis that is the festival's primary venue. (Additional venues include the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis and the Landmark Center in St. Paul.) "And one really strong way in which we can be that is through our international film festival."

Smoluchowski believes that "the more we are exposed as individuals to people from other parts of the world — and it's easy to be exposed to people from other parts of the world at a festival like this, because that's what we're all about — the better we understand that the differences among us are so much less than the parallels. And I think once anyone understands that, we are much less likely to isolate ourselves."

The "power of movies on a big screen seen collectively is what we're talking about here — I don't think anything can be equated to that moment," Smoluchowski said. "When the lights go down, and the screen goes bright, and we are settled here for an hour and a half or two hours (or three hours even these days) into a story that someone is skillfully telling us, there's just nothing quite like it. So I believe that it is an art form that will be with us forever."

Or as young María in "The Movie Teller" says, "Someone said we are such stuff as dreams are made of.

"I think we're made of the same stuff as movies."