Italy's Taormina Film Fest plays pivotal fest calendar role

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ROME -- While the southern half of Italy has seen numerous film festivals pop up over the last year, few can hope to last as long as the annual film event in Taormina. Although the Taormina Film Fest is celebrating its 53rd incarnation this year (the event begins Saturday and concludes June 22), new artistic director Deborah Young is looking to reinvent the venerable fest as a unique Mediterranean event that reflects the host village's long history as a crossroad of Mediterranean cultures.

"What I envision is Taormina emerging as a Mediterranean festival that draws not only films from the region but also talent from the region and interest from other festivals in the region, plus venture capital and producers," Young says.

Previous editions of the Taormina event were known for highlighting new talent or focusing on what has been referred to as "hip" niches in the film world, but this latest evolution comes with an increasingly crowded calendar in place.

Heavy mettle: Taormina nabs 'Transformers' premiere

New events in the bottom half of the country include two festivals in the capital: the RomaCinemaFest, which will hold its sophomore edition in October, and the Roma-FictionFest (dedicated to TV content), which is set to launch in early July. Add to that the new Drake International Film Festival, set to take place outside Naples just after Taormina closes, and the Salento Fear Fest, which concluded its program of horror and thriller films just before Taormina's start date.

Then there is the new Malta International Film Festival -- also looking to establish itself as a presence linking the Middle East and Europe -- which is set to launch in September.

According to Young, Taormina will rely on its history to set it apart from the crowd.

"We don't have to explain to people what Taormina is," Young says. "It already has a long and colorful history and a strong reputation. We want to take that and build on it. We believe that from its new footing, Taormina can become one of the great old festivals of Europe, on par with (the festivals held in) Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Locarno."

Observers note that Young's ambitions are not impossible, but they might be difficult to achieve in a place where the calendar seems to grow more crowded by the week.

"The glory years for Taormina were in the 1970s, which was also the end of the golden era for Italian film," says Gloria Satta, editor of the culture pages at the Rome daily Il Messaggero, who attended her first Taormina Film Fest in 1975. "After that, the festival struggled for a long time. I'd say it's on the way up again now, but there is so much competition -- not only for the good films but also for the public's attention and for the media. How many festivals can we pay attention to?"

So far, Taormina has appeared able to grab its share of films that are important enough to make people pay attention. The headline screening at this year's festival is Paramount's big-budget sci-fi extravaganza "Transformers," which will launch the summer movie season with its June 21 screening at Taormina's ancient Greek Theatre, famously situated on the cusp of the Mediterranean -- complete with smoke from the stunning volcano Mount Etna drifting upward in the background.

"Transformers" director Michael Bay and star Shia LaBeouf will be on hand for the event.

But the program has plenty of other fare worthy of attention, and it's not all from Hollywood. The festival will include four world premieres: the Italian anti-Mafia film "L'Uomo di Vetro" (The Man of Glass) from Stefano Incerti, the Moroccan travel film "Two Women on the Road" from Farida Bourquia, the drama "Fuerte Apache" from Spain's Jaume Mateu Adrover and the French crime picture "13 M2" from Barthelemy Grossman.

The jury is just as diverse and will be headed by Argentine director Luis Puenzo, the Tribeca Film Festival's Peter Scarlet, Egyptian director Marwan Hamed and Serbian film-maker Goran Paskaljevic.

Young believes that ultimately, like all film fests, Taormina will be judged by its lineup, which she says is unique in that it is far more focused than those of other international film events.

"I think that one of the big advantages of a festival like Taormina's is that people know they are getting a very selective set of films," she says. "There are only seven films in competition, seven out of competition, seven films shown in the Greek Theatre."

The setting also is a major plus -- Young is fond of calling Taormina "the most beautiful spot on Earth" -- and almost anyone who has visited the city would say that's not much of an exaggeration.

According to Richard Borg, United International Pictures' managing director for Italy, a third factor working in Taormina's favor is its position on that increasingly crowded calendar. Although 2007 features more festivals than ever in Italy and 2008 could host still more, most are clustered in the fall and early winter. Taormina remains in a position to become the premier summer platform in Italy, especially since Europe is increasingly embracing the concept of the summer tentpole release.

"The idea of the summer blockbuster film has been a regular thing in the U.S. market, but it is just arriving in Italy," Borg says. "In Italy and in much of Europe, the summer months have been a slow time, but that's changing. And as it does, Taormina will be in a prime spot to take advantage of that trend."

Adds Young: "Taormina comes almost exactly at the halfway point between (the Festival de Cannes) and (the Venice Film Festival). It's a perfect spot on the calendar for a festival that takes place in the most beautiful part of the world."
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