Taormina Film Fest 2002

Taormina Film Festival, July 2002–The artistic highlight of the 48th edition of the Taormina International Film Festival was a complete retrospective of Italian maestro Sergio Leone. On opening night, the distinguished musician Ennio Morricone, who composed numerous scores for Leone’s spaghetti Westerns (and other movies), was on stage, conducting a 100-member Rome Symphony Orchestra complete with choir.

At the end of the concert, the giant screen of the old Greek Amphitheatre, which accommodates more than 3,000 seats, lighted up with a 20 minute preview footage of Martin Scorsese’s upcoming gangster epic, Gangs of New York, which Miramax will release stateside in December. Italians a have special affinity with the film, which was shot on the famous sets of Rome’s Cinecitta Studios.

The newly renamed festival, now called The Taormina BNL FilmFest, after the commitment of Italy’s Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (National Bank of Lobor), benefits from the dynamic leadership of former Venice Festival topper, Felice Laudadio, and his two vice presidents: Steve Clain (former Miramax exec) and Variety’s longtime critic Deborah Young.

The only mainstream Hollywood film to be shown outdoors was Joel Schumacher’s mild action comedy, Bad Company. Much more enthusiastic was the response to the UK comedy, About a Boy, starring Hugh Grant, who introduced the film in person and received one of the fest’s diamond artists awards.

Every night before the main screening, an international film figure got a tribute and the Diamond Artist Award. Among the recipients this year were Isabelle Huppert (whose Cannes-premiered Deux was shown), Hugh Grant, Willem Dafoe (whose new movie, The Reckoning, received world premiere), Greta Sccachi, Laura Maurante, and Stefania Sandrelli, who brought fond memories of her long and distinguished career, particularly her luminous appearance in Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist.

There was plenty to choose from the festival’s eclectic mix of European, Middle-Eastern, Asian, and Australian fare. I was particularly impressed with the Palestinian feature, Ticket to Jerusalem, shot by Gaza-born Rashid Msharawi against great odds in the war-torn region. This simple yet charming fable concerns the passion and obsession of one man to bring movie culture (via cartoons) to deprived children in the Arab section of Jerusalem.

Also noteworthy was Rabbit Proof-Fense, which represents a welcome return of helmer Philip Noyce to his Aussie roots, with a touching, well-shot tale of British abuse of the Aboriginal tribe. A standout among the French films shown was Yves Angelo’s melodrama, At the Tips of Her Fingers (Sur le Bout des Doigts), which seemed to be inspired by Bergman’s masterworks, Persona and Autumn Sonata. Playing like a reversal of the 1978 Bergman film, At the Tip deals with an intense intergenerational conflict between two musicians, a jealous mother and her gifted daughter.

The festival’s closing day, July 13, was dedicated to American eccentric filmmaker, Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol’s longtime collaborator and one of the most innovative and indie director of the 1960s and 1970s, before independent cinema became a movement. Morrissey introduced his noted–and notorious trilogy, Flesh, Trash, and Heat, starring Joe D’Alessandro.

While Taormina remains a rigorously non-competitive festival for feature films, Laudadio came up with an innovative concept, two competitions for shorts films, one international, the other from Sicily. With Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami as president, and indie director Todd Solondz as vice president, the jury awarded two generous prizes (about 10,000 dollars each) to young filmmakers, committed to use the cash for making their next film, which will be shown at the 2003 edition. The dozen or so competing films in each series, which were open to the public, had been selected out of a larger pool by the Sicilian Cinematheque, with the prizes sponsored by the BNL. Placing shorts on the same par as feature films will distinguish Taormina as an important venue for spotting young and fresh talent.

Situated on the magnificent coast line of Sicily, Taormina is easily one of the most beautifully situated film festivals in the world. The resort town, with its great restaurants (and wine) and friendly ambience, is a perfect place to combine movie love and sheer pleasure. Since the days are rather long, screening at the Greek amphi begin at nine (or rather ten; this is Italy, after all). During the hour before the showings, the festival’s official guests are invited to cocktails at the terrace of Timeo Hotel, an elegant affair overlooking the majestic Mount Etna.

The often-active volcano site behaved rather mildly this year, though there were minor eruptions to be seen and heard. I am told that last year, during an outdoor screening of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux, Mount Etna erupted during the film’s most exciting scene, when the helicopters descending on the Vietnam village. When Coppola was told of the prophetic incident, he is reported to have said, “They turned it on.”

This year’s Taormina fest overlapped with Karlovy Vary, taking place just five weeks before Venice, Italy’s premier festival. For next year’s edition, Laudadio has fortuitously decided to move the festival to June 14-21, to signal the beginnings of the cinematic summer season.