The Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival roared back to life Friday following the disruption of the pandemic years.

And the opening ceremony kicked off with a bit of digital disruption: the audience was invited to pull out their mobile phones and follow festival dancers online before they burst onto the stage with a real-life fire show.

The Czech Republic’s main event in the art film world, the festival this year screens some 132 narrative and doc films and has become a hub for filmmakers, producers and regional orgs.

But even as enthusiastic, unmasked crowds cheered on the launch of the nine-day event at the iconic 70s-tastic Hotel Thermal, a sense of loss pervaded the proceedings.

Many eyes in the hotel’s soaring Grand Hall misted over during the opening night tribute to former fest artistic director Eva Zaoralova, who died in March at 89.

In many ways the architect of the modern KVIFF along with fest president Jiri Bartoska, the diminutive, blonde force of nature would have been delighted to see the triumphant return of audiences, stars and a packed screenings calendar.

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Courtesy of KVIFF

Bartoska said of his longtime partner at KVIFF: “We want to thank Eva for everything she’s done for us – and for the festival.”

In the early 90s, Zaoralova, then a respected Czech film critic and journalist, conceived a new vision to restore engagement, sparkle and international creds to KVIFF, which had at that point been run mainly by Cold War-era state officials.

Helped along the way in bringing back the buzz by Czech-born Oscar winner Milos Forman, Zaoralova and Bartoska embraced a strategy of educating and exposing a new generation of cinephiles to great film art from around the world. They also set out to showcase the best work of brave, new filmmakers from Central and Eastern Europe, a tradition that continues to grow.

Not only has KVIFF launched a host of new events dedicated to nurturing creative work, such as KVIFF Talents, it is also embracing industry technology shifts and digital platforms in the form of KVIFF.TV, a Czech streaming platform offering hundreds of films, fest news and interviews.

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Courtesy of KVIFF

The fest is also taking a lead in regional art film distribution, having acquired the Czech Republic’s primary indie cinema group, Aerofilms, which has picked up titles from the Karlovy Vary event for years.

The newly launched KVIFF.TV Park event center, situated next to the storied Hotel Thermal, complements the brutalist, concrete structure that has functioned as the fest mothership since it opened in 1976 after nine years of being fitted out with cinemas, terraces and surreal lighting and spaceship-worthy furnishings.

Talks at the new pop-up lounge, bedecked in Cinzano red, kick off this year too, although Liev Schrieber’s will be in the traditional press conference hall.

Guests Geoffrey Rush, recipient of the lifetime achievement Crystal Globe, and Benicio Del Toro, getting the fest president’s award, were also not yet on stage Friday, making for a slightly less glitzy opener this year.

KVIFF paid a high COVID cost over the past two years, canceled at the last moment in 2020 and again when rescheduled for the fall of that year. Last year’s in-person edition was a win, certainly, with 144 films, guests Ethan Hawke and Johnny Depp, appearing as filmmaker, screening his documentary “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan,” chronicling the life of The Pogues’ founding member.

But with an expanded slate of industry pitching and development events, the launch of the new global competition Proxima featuring outstanding film work from as far as Brazil and Iran and a helping hand to Ukrainian filmmakers – the Odesa film fest works-in-progress event has shifted westward to Karlovy Vary this year – it’s clear that the event is back with a bang.

And that somewhere, a fabulously coiffed Czech film modern matriarch is smiling.