Taormina Film Festival

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Now in its 56th year, the Taormina Film Festival has carved out a pair of unlikely niches in Europe's busy film calendar.

Under fourth-year artistic director Deborah Young, the festival has taken advantage of its location on the island of Sicily to transform itself into a prominent Mediterranean event, each year dedicating a sidebar to a country in the region. This year Spain gets the nod, following previous sidebars on the films of France, Turkey and Egypt.

While there is that other high-profile Mediterranean fest that takes place in early May, Taormina has raised its own profile by being a springboard for Hollywood blockbusters that didn't make their way to Cannes. This year's event will open with the premiere of Disney-Pixar's "Toy Story 3." Taormina organizers say the film, the first 3D production from the 15-year-old "Toy Story" franchise, will be the first major 3D movie to premiere outdoors when it screens in Taormina's 2,300-year-old Greek Theatre. In recent years, the festival has also hosted the international launches of Michael Bay's "Transformers" and "Mission: Impossible II" from John Woo.

"We're very proud of both these aspects to the festival," Young says. "It may not seem like it at first, but these different parts add to the richness of the festival and the experience for the people who attend."

Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange at '09 Taormina Festival
 

While the June 12 screening of "Toy Story 3" -- showing in Taormina a day before its official world premiere in Los Angeles -- is sure to dominate interest heading into the festival, the seven-film sidebar of Spanish pictures is also worthy of attention. The films -- all from post-2004 -- were selected in collaboration with Nuria Vidal, a leading Spanish film critic.

"What I wanted these films to show is the real variety that Spanish cinema offers," Vidal says. "I don't think they get enough attention outside Spain, and I think Taormina will help change that."

Like many festivals, Taormina hands out its share of honors, and the recipients at this year's event are another indication the fest has a reached a new level of prominence.

Robert De Niro headlines the list of honorees, receiving the Taormina Arte award. The Oscar winner expressed interest in attending Taormina before but was prevented from doing so by scheduling conflicts. This year he will not only make the trip, but he also will conduct a Master Class on the festival's second day and will introduce a screening of his directorial effort "The Good Shepherd."

"Robert De Niro is really a great fit for a festival like Taormina," says Young, who was recently given a new mandate to stay at Taormina's helm through at least the 2011 festival. "Because of 'The Godfather' and his Italian heritage, he is identified with Sicily, and we're pleased and honored he will be able to make it this year."

Other Taormina Arte award winners include actor Colin Firth, who garnered an Oscar nomination last year for Tom Ford's "A Single Man," innovative 90-year-old Sicilian director-screenwriter Francesco Alliata, and Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Firth and Alliata are expected in Taormina to accept their prize, but Panahi's participation is less likely given recent events.



The director -- whose previous honors include the 2006 Silver Bear in Berlin for "Offside," the 2003 jury prize in Cannes for "Crimson Gold," and Cannes' Camera d'Or prize in 1995 for "The White Balloon" -- garnered headlines recently when he was arrested in Tehran, reportedly for political reasons. The arrest sparked worldwide protest -- including at Cannes, where he was supposed to be a member of the main jury. While he was released in May after a weeklong hunger strike, he is still awaiting trial and it's unlikely he will be allowed out of the country.

"Jafar Panahi's arrest is really an appalling development," Young says. "He is one of the most important film directors in the region and he was arrested for supporting an opposition political campaign. It would be like arresting Steven Spielberg or someone like that. It's really astonishing, and we think it is important for us to take this step to call attention to his plight."

Other personalities expected in Taormina: Italian director Marco Bellocchio, renowned stylist Valentino Garavani, horror film maestro Dario Argento and Serbian Palme d'Or winner Emir Kusturica, who will be presented with the closing-night honor for Fondazione Roma Mediterraneo Dialogue Between Culture, a prize presented in association with The Hollywood Reporter.

The festival will also feature the world premiere of "A Trick in the Sheet" the first writing credit from actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta, a native of nearby Messina, and the Italian premiere of Neil LaBute's latest comedy "Death at a Funeral."

Catherine Denuve at '09 Taormina Festival
 

In addition, organizers have planned events around Italy's June 14 World Cup soccer match against Paraguay. It's the second consecutive World Cup in which the organizers bowed to Italy's most popular sport when the national side played during the festival.

All told, it's a solid lineup for a festival that started rather modestly as the Rassegna Cinematografica Internazionale di Messina e Taormina -- Italian for the International Cinema Review of Messina and Taormina -- back in 1955. Taormina officials say the event has helped transform the city.

"As a city, Taormina has always had the wonderful views, the culture, the scenery, the beaches," says Mario Mannella, the head of Taormina's municipal tourism division. "The film festival helps to illustrate those things to the world. A lot of people come to Taormina for the festival and they choose to come back later as tourists because they liked it so much."

In recent years, organizers have begun holding events in different parts of the island of Sicily, and the youth program this year is aimed at drawing a younger audience to the festival. Young says she expects more than 1,000 students to show up as part of the program. The festival will also host a music program, this time focusing on Brazil.

This will be the first Taormina festival with a lineup selected in collaboration with Shane Danielson, the former director of the Edinburgh and Sydney film festivals. Danielson was named Taormina's senior programmer and worked with Young and fellow Taormina veteran Luca Di Leonardo to select the main films in the program.

The main prizes will be selected by a jury headed by Dieter Kosslick, the popular director of the Berlinale.
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