Taormina Festival Gets Underway, Aims to Become Comedy and Horror Destination

Taormina Festival Logo - H 2012

Taormina Festival Logo - H 2012

In addition to a new artistic director and shift to genre fare, highlights of the 58-year-old Sicilian event include a screening of Disney/Pixar's 'Brave,' honors for Sophia Loren and Terry Gilliam.

ROME – The Taormina Film Festival’s rebirth as an international home for comedy and horror films gets underway Friday, with the 58th edition of the cliffside Sicilian event making laughs and screams its central goal.

For most of its long history, Taormina was a destination for art house films. Under previous artistic director Deborah Young, that continued along with a top-shelf Hollywood stars (Robert De Niro and Oliver Stone) and serving as the European launching pad for major summer blockbusters (Transformers, Toy Story 3). But earlier this year, Young – international film editor for The Hollywood Reporter – departed amid a budget crisis, and in May Mario Sesti was named to replace her.

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Sesti, a film critic until now best known as the head of the International Rome Film Festival’s innovative Extra sidebar, who was coincidentally born down the road from Taormina in the Sicilian city of Messina, has said he wants to reinvent the festival with a focus on comedy and horror films.

This year’s event, which concludes June 28, does follow in the footsteps of previous events with major star power (both Sophia Loren and Terry Gilliam will be honored at the festival) and the screening of blockbuster films (Disney/Pixar’s Brave will screen in the festival’s signature Teatro Antico on Saturday). But it will also be notable for an increased visibility for comedy and horror films, a trend that will expand in 2013, Sesti said.

“Festivals usually shun comedy films or horror,” Sesti said in an interview. “Maybe they’ll give a lifetime achievement award to a great figure in one of these genres, but in terms of individual films, they are usually shunned.”

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Italy is a natural fit for what Sesti calls “the first festival that is serious about comedy.” The domestic portion of the Italian box office is dominated by comedies every year: according to cinema monitoring company Cinetel, the top grossing Italian production has been a comedy in nine of the last 11 years, though there has not been an Italian comedy with significant international box office appeal since Roberto Begnini’s La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) 15 years ago. Nine of last year’s ten top grossing Italian films were comedies.

If the movie going public wants comedy, they’ll find it in Taormina. Lawrence Kasdan and son Jon Kasdan will come to Taormina to present a pair of comedies: Lawrence’s Darling Companion, which stars Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline as a married couple with comedic tensions related to their dog, and The First Time, a teenage romantic comedy from Jon. The films will screen on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, in the Teatro Antico.

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Perhaps as a nod toward its art house traditions, the festival will also show some less mainstream comedies that include Jannacke Systad Jacobsen’s Norwegian coming of age comedy, Fa meg Pa, for faen (Turn Me On, Dammit!); French director Frederic Beigbeder’s L’amour dure trois ans (Love Lasts Three Years), a comedy about a marriage falling apart; and Et maintenant on va ou? (Where Do We Go Now?) from Lebaniese director Nadine Labaki, an unlikely comedy about Christian/Muslim tensions in a village.

The horror aspect of the festival will be highlighted by two U.S. productions: Mauro Borrelli’s The Gostmaker, and last year’s remake of The Thing from Matthijs van Heijningen. Appropriately, both films will screen at midnight in the majestic Teatro Antico, a 3,000-seat venue built on top of previous theatres 2,700 years ago by Greek settlers.

“I like to think about how many people have either laughed or screamed in the history of the Teatro Antico,” Sesti said. “This year we’ll add a few more.”