Taormina Film Festival: Where Cinema Takes a Backseat to Glamour

With so few movies unspooling at the Sicily-based festival, Variety's overseas critic turns his attention to the event's other attractions

Taormina Film Festival Pamela Anderson
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If you should have the good fortune to visit Sicily in June, the last thing you want to do is sit inside and watch movies. That’s just as well for the Taormina Film Festival, since half the movies are shown outdoors in the Teatro Antico, and the other half no one wants to see anyway.

Taormina is the first film festival I’ve attended where film seems to be the least important thing going on. Three years ago, the event was on the brink of bankruptcy when Tiziana Rocca took the reins and rescued it. One thing I’ve learned about Southern Italy this week: When life gives them lemons, they make limoncello.

A publicity maven from Rome, Rocca instinctively understood that glamour would be the way to bring attention back to Taormina. And so, for eight nights in the middle of June, the city becomes the backdrop for starry awards shows, lavish dinners, massive branding opportunities and, yes, even a few screenings.

Rocca’s strategy is simple. “Every night a new star,” explained the model-gorgeous PR guru, who towers a head above everyone else and clearly understands the power of the photo op. Whenever the paparazzi are near, she can be found glued to the right elbow of anyone famous. “We took Pamela Anderson down to Isola Bella and re-created ‘Baywatch’ on the beach,” she beamed. (When Meg Ryan attended a year earlier, I hope they spared her a “Joe Versus the Volcano” shoot.)

Still, for the majority of international press, the festival confounds. Most of the events take place in untranslated Italian, with dozens of prizes given to domestic stars, only one of whom (Claudia Cardinale) I recognized. The only world premiere was a “Mamma Mia!” wannabe called “Walking on Sunshine,” while big gets like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” (shown in Italian), “Jersey Boys” and “Belle” had already screened at other fests.

Although the well-known American award recipients each participated in open-to-everyone “master class” interviews, festival artistic director Mario Sesti resisted asking about projects in the pipeline in favor of questions like, “How do you like Sicily?” and “Who are your favorite Italian directors?” When it came time for the audience to present questions, interesting things started to happen.

Stiller told the crowd he is “actively” working on the “Zoolander” sequel.

John Turturro dropped a bombshell on “Big Lebowski” fans: “I hope to do something with the Jesus character next year,” he said, explaining that the Coen brothers had seen him do a variation on that persona onstage in “La Puta Vida Trilogy” at the Public Theater in New York (he played a child molester in Reinaldo Povod’s one-act “Nijinsky Choked His Chicken”) and written it into their surreal bowling opus. Now he wants to build an entire movie around the creep. “Just the character of Jesus, no other people (from “Lebowski,” the rights to which Universal controls) … if they give me permission. The Coen brothers say yes. It’s not true yet, but I’m trying.”

With not much else to report and slim pickings among the screenings (on average, just two or three features unspool per day), one has the afternoons free to explore the city.

Taormina’s streets are lined with store windows offering arrangements of fruit made from porcelain and marzipan. The score to “The Godfather” comes spilling out of one shop. Terrain-wise, Taormina isn’t so different from Southern California. The buildings are older, of course, though Hollywood visitors are greeted with the familiar sight of bougainvillea overflowing from walls and windowsills.

Cars are forbidden on the streets, except during the festival, which is a fine opportunity for the main sponsor, Maserati. The locals press their faces to the tinted windows, hoping for a glimpse of someone famous. Young people stop Variety veepee Dawn Allen in the street to snap photos with her, because you never know, and she looks the part.

Around 9 p.m. each night, the stars are trotted out onstage at the aforementioned Teatro Antico — a giant Greek amphitheater where, on clear evenings, lava can be seen glowing from Mount Etna in the distance. Foreign honorees earn big points by saying a few words in Italian. Matt Dillon, back for his third visit to the festival, seems to know a fair amount. Paz Vega sounds fluent.

Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos made it a point to give part of his acceptance speech in Italian, which somehow made up for the fact that he didn’t deliver the 20-minute “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” teaser that had been touted — though the folks at Fox managed to surprise him with a sizzle reel featuring congratulatory remarks on his award from James Cameron, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ridley Scott and Ben Stiller — the latter also a Taormina honoree this year.

As soon as the awards end, the notables are whisked off to elaborate dinners. Every night, they sup at a different hot spot, where Rocca has handpicked the menu, arranging special gifts of scarves and jewelry for all the female guests. The food service begins around 11 and continues well into the night. One is grateful to eat at one’s own hotel, since it means getting to bed at a decent hour. In my case, said bed is a giant circular mattress in one of the Hotel Metropole’s designer rooms — a breathtaking two-story number that makes me loath to return to my Paris closet.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about such extravagance is the fact that it isn’t extravagant at all in terms of budget. Sesti’s contributions notwithstanding, this is essentially a one-woman show, one that derives enormous mileage not just from the Maserati sponsorship, but also from Taormina’s natural attractions — the amphitheater, the beach, the volcano, the food. All that’s missing are the movies.