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Film historian, author and critic Peter Brunette died Wednesday of an apparent heart attack in Italy while attending the Taormina Film Festival on behalf of The Hollywood Reporter. He was 66.
Brunette had been reviewing films on assignment for THR for the past four years, in addition to his writing duties and work as a professor of film studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
The news of his death sent ripples through Taormina and the Italian and U.S. film community. The festival canceled its early evening press cocktail reception, and fest artistic director Deborah Young said she would make an announcement and call for a moment of silence in honor of Brunette ahead of the evening’s screening in the Teatro Antico.
“Peter was such a wonderful man, a dear friend and a wonderful colleague,” said Young. “The whole festival is in absolute shock over Peter’s passing.
“I saw him the night before at the bar briefly. He was so happy and having such a good time covering the festival.”
Young, who, in addition to her role as Taormina’s artistic director, is the chief international critic for THR, said Brunette had indicated for years that he wanted to attend the Taormina event. He did so for the first time this year.
“I’m glad that Peter finally had a chance to come to Taormina,” Young said. “But that is a small condolence for the passing of a person as warm and as well liked as Peter.”
Brunette had complained to several people the day before of being tired after a long car trip through France, Spain and Morocco after the Festival de Cannes, which he also helped cover for THR. Brunette was planning to spend the entire summer at various festivals on behalf of THR, culminating in Venice in September, where he would be reviewing movies and shepherding a film class.
“Peter’s insights into moviemaking and his enthusiasm for films was infectious. We were honored to have him as a member of our reviewing family. He will be sorely missed,” said THR editor Elizabeth Guider.
Kirk Honeycutt, THR’s chief film critic, said, “Hanging out with Peter at festivals and, in more recent years, working closely with him as a colleague was one of my major joys in going to these events. Peter was such a warm and engaging person as well as a such a bon vivant, as we and others shared long dinners with generous amounts of wine, that I cannot imagine any of these festivals being the same without him.”
Brunette, who lived for a while in France and spoke several European languages, was a fixture on the major fest circuit for 25 years. He reviewed films for several other publications prior to THR, including Screen International and indieWIRE.
His knowledge of film, especially international cinema, was encyclopedic, yet he brought a down-to-earth tone to his reviews of even art house films. In his recent review of the Romanian film “Aurora” at Cannes, Brunette wrote, “These days young Romanian directors seem to be indulging in a frenzied round of macho competition: How long can we baffle and bore the audience before we deliver the goods? It must be said immediately that the goods are, in fact, always delivered at the end of the best of these films, and that’s wonderfully true in ‘Aurora’ as well. But what do we have to go through to get there?”
Peter Brunette, left, with Kirk Honeycutt and Mira Advani Honeycutt in Cannes, 2008
Brunette wore several different hats. Along with film reviews, he penned articles for the Boston Globe and the New York Times where he specialized in interviews of filmmakers outside the American mainstream. He was director of the film studies program at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He also wrote or edited a number of books about international filmmakers.
He wrote studies of auteurs such as Wong Kar Wai, Michelangelo Antonioni and Roberto Rossellini while serving as editor of a film interview series at the University Press of Mississippi, where more than 60 books have been published. His most recent book, on Austrian director Michael Haneke, was published in February by the U. of Illinois Press. Brunette was working on a book about Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti.
“I’ve known Peter at least 25 years, meeting his for the first time at the Montreal Film Festival,” said Christian Science Monitor film critic Peter Rainer, who sponsored Brunette for his membership in the National Society of Film Critics. “He had his other life in academia as a film scholar, particularly of Italian cinema. But on the film festival circuit you would never know that. He was a ‘hail fellow well met.’
“He loved to go to film festivals. It’s corny but fitting that this happened at an Italian film festival. He was a great guy to hang out with and talk and see movies with.”
“He was Reynolds Professor here at Wake Forest, and I would say a quintessential Reynolds Professor,” said Jacquelyn Fetrow, the dean of the college. “We ask such chairs to be nationally and internationally known for their scholarship, which he certainly was in Italian cinema, and to bring that love of scholarship into the undergraduate classroom. Peter did that very well. He loved to be in the classroom, and his students learned not just to view a film but to analyze films critically.”
When his wife of many years passed away a few years ago, he went ahead a few weeks later to cover the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, saying that watching and writing about films was a form of therapy to help get his mind off his own personal pain.
Brunette received a bachelor of arts from Duquesne University in 1965 and a masters from the same university in 1967. He received a Ph.D. in English and Film from the University of Wisconsin in 1975. He served as an instructor at the University of Maryland and George Mason University before joining Wake Forest in 2004.
Taormina fest organizers said that arrangements were being made for Brunette to be flown back to the U.S. early next week. Funeral arrangements are pending. Brunette is survived by a sister, Rose Dean.
Below are two video reviews from Brunette at the 2009 Festival de Cannes, discussing Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist.”
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