Taormina expansion gives festgoers a chance to get a little closer together


TAORMINA, Sicily -- The Sicilians have an anecdote they like to tell while idling the hours away on a star-filled night in this veritable cinema paradiso.

It goes something like this: "In Milan, they say meet at 8, and they meet at 8; in Rome, they say let's meet at around 8; and in Sicily they say maybe we meet or maybe we don't meet at all." And so it was at the recently wrapped 55th Taormina Film Festival in Sicily, which this year expanded beyond its traditional hub and namesake, Taormina, to unspool in four cities around the scenic island.

Giuseppe Tornatore's foreign Oscar winner about a Sicilian film director's reminiscences about his childhood spent at a village theater, the Cinema Paradiso, would seem the perfect analogy for Taormina's new initiative to bring cinema to far-flung corners of the island.

"You can tell the success of a festival by the amount of press you get," says Taormina director and The Hollywood Reporter film critic Deborah Young, in her third year as festival head. "We had so much press this year through the expansion. Nationally, we landed on all the major networks."

International guests mostly spent time in the island's most fashionable city, where the bustling Corso almost could be mistaken for a catwalk come Saturday night, when the main activity outside of the festival is a showy stroll through town.

Off-piste, the turnout was just as impressive.

Catherine Deneuve, Jessica Lange, Dominique Sanda, Fanny Ardant, Amy Mullins and fashion designer Emanuele Ungaro enjoyed the seclusion of the elegant Timeo Hotel, holding court by day on the very terrace where guests gathered for nightly cocktails and the breathtaking view of Mount Etna, smoldering beyond the Mediterranean.

In keeping with the scenery, the fest's main showcase, the Meditteranea, focused on films from around that fabled sea. This year, the lineup included several world premieres, including Antonio Capuano's northern Italy-set "Giallo?" and "The Long Night" by Hatem Ali, the eventual top prizewinner, which focused on prisoners from his native Syria. Schmuel Beru's "Zrubavel," meanwhile, told the story of Israel's sidelined community of Ethiopian Jews.

Thanks to the Beyond the Mediterranean section, a number of U.S. directors made the trek to this southern Italian outpost, including Los Angeles-based Gustave Reininger with his "Corso: The Last Beat," which focuses on beatnik Gregory Corso and is narrated by Ethan Hawke.

Other films came from as far afield as Australia with Megan Doneman's "Yes Madam Sir," about India's first female policewoman, which tied in nicely with a panel titled "Strong Women."

During that session, Lange spoke out about the limited number of roles available for women in Hollywood, quoting a figure of 60-40 for the percentage of roles for men vs. women. "You have to remember that only 10% of those are for women over 40, not to mention women over 50 or 60," she said.

A number of master classes took place, including one led by Ardant about her directorial debut, "Ashes and Blood," which she said she wrote in secret, telling no one but her children that she was planning to direct a film.

"They said, 'Mama, are you crazy,' " she told THR.

Despite a packed schedule by day, the fest took on a magical feel each night at around 9 p.m., or make that 10 p.m., when guests usually could be found finally in one place: the historic amphitheater, the Teatro Antico, which serves as the gala venue for the eight-day event.

A number of U.S. films were programmed for the evenings, including the Lange starrer "Grey Gardens," about Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale, the eccentric relatives of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy; and Mark Waters' "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past."

French cinema too was in the spotlight, with Cannes Palme d'Or winner Laurent Cantet serving as a jury member. Brazil too fielded a hefty contingent, including musician Carlinhos Brown, who gave a concert at the Teatro Antico.

Young says the Sicilian and Brazilian film industries are forging closer ties.

Sicily's own industry is booming, with 40 films produced in the past year, up from about five films in previous years, thanks to a new initiative by the Sicilian Film Commission.

This year, the fest screened around 60 films, with 30 of them new titles.

"This is a boutique event, which, by its nature, attracts premieres as we don't show 200 films," Young says. As for trends in filmmaking on display here, she adds: "Religion is definitely the new politics."

Despite the economic downturn, the fest's funding was up 25% to help with the expansion around Sicily. "We have been especially fortunate," Young says.