Taormina: The Sicilian connection

Positions itself as springboard for summer blockbusters

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ROME -- Once known best for its stunning setting and storied history, the 54-year-old Taormina Film Festival has recently begun to emerge as both a starting point for summer blockbusters and a touchstone for Mediterranean cinema.

Taormina is probably best known for its historic Greek Theatre, a 3,000-year-old classical-style stone theater that is transformed every year into what is no doubt the world's oldest cinema. The theater is perched on a cliff overlooking a bay, with Mount Etna, Europe's largest active volcano, towering over it.

Last year, the theater was the site of the high-profile launch of summer smash "Transformers," officially putting the festival on the map for scores of film fans who may not have known about the festival previously. This year, a completely refurbished version of Federico Fellini's "Toby Dammit" will open the festival, along with a second yet-to-be-named film. "Toby Dammit," a 37-minute part of the 1968 "Tre Passi nel Delirio" (Spirits of the Dead) collection, marks Fellini's only collaboration with Terence Stamp, who plays the lead role of a traveler who unexpectedly finds himself in the underworld of the Italian capital.

Even though Taormina is opening with a 40-year-old Italian art film, it's clear that the festival is on Hollywood's radar. This is, in part, because its timing -- this year's event takes place Sunday through June 21 -- positions it at the start of the summer movie season.

"We think it's a great way to get things started for a summer film," says Chrisann Verges, one of the producers behind Sony Pictures Classics' martial arts drama "Redbelt." The film, written and directed by David Mamet, will screen at the Greek Theatre on Tuesday, the same day as Italy's European Cup soccer match against France.

Knowing that scheduling a film in soccer-mad Italy at the same time as the on-the-field clash between the national team and a bitter rival is a losing proposition, Taormina pushed back the starting time for "Redbelt" until just after the game. And the festival has applied for permission to screen the game itself in the Greek Theatre as a warm-up. "You can't fight against soccer in Italy," says second-year artistic director Deborah Young, The Hollywood Reporter's chief international film critic. "You just have to roll with it."

In addition to respecting the region's fervent sports legacy, Taormina is staying true to its Mediterranean roots with a sidebar focusing on Turkish cinema and a new initiative called "Campus Taormina," which will bring youngsters from the nearby cities of Catania and Messina to participate in the festival. Taormina also plans to create its first-ever industry space: a low-pressure, small-scale film market where distributors can watch a select collection of in-production and recently completed projects, including films related in some way to Sicily.

"We feel like Taormina is reinventing itself, but it is doing so while retaining the things that have made it such a wonderful festival over the years," Young says. "We have to be creative enough to value what we have while learning how to build on it."
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