by Harlan Kennedy



QUICK! Hold the scribes. There's a high-speed marathon runner coming in from Taormina with a fragment of conversation from that up and-coming writer, Aristophanes. REPORT FOLLOWS:

PROBING QUESTION: What do you think of the new open-air amphitheatre, Mr Aristophanes?

ARISTOPHANES: "I dig it. It's really cool. You know, the way they've managed to build it right into the hillside. I mean you can see that Etna volcano and the sea from the top seats. And this climate. What more could you want? If some dude would invent tourism, then this would be the place to be."

PROBING QUESTIONER: May I ask what you were doing backstage when I came in?

ARISTOPHANES: "Counting the House. We got 19,482 out there. Not bad for a Wednesday night."





Midway through the 15th International Taormina Film Festival held under the stars in the huge Graeco-Roman Amphitheatre, I noticed Festival director Guglielmo Biraghi "counting the House". Plus ca change, plus c'est la même chose except that tourism and film festivals have been invented – and the island of Sicily makes a perfect, welcoming home for both.

The appeal of the Taormina Film Festival is predicated on the tension between extreme inertia and extreme galvanistion. A huge international gaggle of VIPs – journalists, producers, film-makers, stars – spend sybaritic hours in beachside hotels, turning brown under the Sicilian Sun from late breakfast to early dinner, and then, circa 8.30, are furiously sparked into action to ascend the bougainvillea-clad hill to Taormina town where the nightly films unfold in the amphitheatre. There are also films during the day for the energetic and conscientious. Gee, I wish I had a suntan.

Here they battle lustily with the most unpredictable movie programme of the Whole European fest circuit. Aided by Italian subtitles, they will attempt to crack the conundrums of a Finnish adaptation of Dostoevsky, an Icelandic nuclear parable, a Chinese-American cine-verité film and the latest Buddy Hackett starrer from Canada. All, or most of the films, are by directors you've never heard of before.

But at Taormina it's no use crying, "Where are the Olmis and Godards and Bergmans d'antan?", for the festival's speciality – and its requirement for competition entry – is that movies are first or second works by their directors. Only in the sidebar events, the Information Section and the American Film Week, are more familiar names evoked. And even here, as the pics unfold nightly in the crumbly magnificence of the Graeco-Roman amphitheatre under a star-punctured sky, festival director Guglielmo Biraghi embraces the aroma of novelty. The Info Section this year sported such non-household names as Holland's Jos Stelling (The illusionist) and Iceland's Thorsein Jonsson (Atom Station) and the Second American Film Week, continuing an event successfully introduced last year, imported freshly hatched talents like James Foley (Reckless) and Robert Zemeckis (Romancing The Stone).

Of course, whenever the new baby directors fail to leap out into the world with a cheery squall and a delighted "Oooh aah" from the midwife critics, this policy can look somewhat careworn. Some new infants at Taormina have been so distressing to the view that one recalls the Joan Rivers line about the doctor slapping the mother instead of the baby. But there's also the chance of Damascene surprise – another way in which 'Taormina' can be 'Animator' – when a new film-maker bounces into view looking like a 10-pound genius.

Tony Gatlif's Les Princes, which rightly won top prize, is a picture about French gypsies by a French gypsy and its power and vitality seize you by the scruff of your golden earrings. Unlike last year's Angelo My Love, which won a brace of prizes at Taormina, it gives us the unsentimental adult end of gypsy life where the nomadic grown-ups suffer external harassment, by police and townsfolk, and internal feuding, between rival families or loggerheaded in-laws, while trying to live off the land like their ancestors of old. (The film's last shot is a visionary flashback to a Mediaeval gypsy band).

I've never seen a camera charge around the place so much. Gatliff doesn't plonk his Arriflex down and let life unfold before it, he storms after his characters in turbulent tracking-shots; yomping over hills and dales, bumping along over Armageddon wastelands where the gypsies encamp and generally making the movie's pulse as fullblooded as the characters'. The latter include the moody, explosive hero (Gérard Darmon), hiss little daughter whom he yanks out of school because she's forced to associate with too many gadjes (non-gypsies), and his Mum (Muse Dalbray) who's a crackpot old loon prone to read policemen's palms (or the Tarot cards, but they cost more, she says encouragingly) and to steal huge plates of couscous through open windows. There is rich comedy here, there are sudden detonations of drama, and all in all you should take a butchers at this Romany holiday.

Elsewhere the stand-out feature of this year's Taofest programme was its Northern European orientation. Norway, Sweden, Finland, Holland, Iceland, Russia, Poland – these icicle-laden countries swept down across the map to offer cold libations in the Sicilian heat while on the night-time horizon Mount Etna's crater gurgled happily away like a giant pot of tomato soup.

Norway was the front runner in the Nordic refreshment rally with Anja Breiera's Papirfuglen (The Kite). "Did he jump or was he pushed?", we ask, about the old stage actor cum failed business speculator (Per Sunderland) who dies after falling from a balcony at his home. His daughter (Elisabeth Mortensen) sets out to investigate, charging across the landscape of her motherland and the fjords of her own memory. We discover there was more to defenestrated Dad than a talent for playing Chekhov and failing to pay cheques off, and we also check off some suspicious things about the daughter. There are cat statuettes containing cocaine, sudden rural flashbacks, incest and great photography, all lapidary blues and shafts of mellow light as if from a friendly policeman's torch. Miss Breien confirms the promise shown in her long ago debut pic Wives, and we hope she will keep on confirming.

Iceland's Atom Station and Sweden's The Mountain On The Dark Side of the Moon also have lambently spiffing photography, although their plots and scripts leave more to be desired. In the first director Thorstein Jonsson doses us with private passion and municipal morality in a country where the NATO pressure is to go nuclear. Momentous theme, but leaden pacing and characterisation. And in the second film, set in the 1880s and based on a true story, director Lennart Hjülstrom and writer Agneta Pleijel uncork the frightfully vicissitudinous romance between a plain-as-a-pikestaff lady mathematician (Gunilla Nyroos) and a handsome Professor (Thommy Berggren, 17 years on from Elvira Madigan).

These are both agony-by-gaslight pics with costumes (and characters) straight out of Madame Tussauds. More tip-top was Holland's The illusionist, a perky fable of magic and madness by Jos Stelling. But over Russia's Reborn, another ballad of a soldier in which the Soviet crane shots are still flying (but to less and less effect) and Finland's Crime and Punishment, which punishes Dostoevsky for a crime he never committed, namely writing an unfilmable novel, let us draw a discreet and impenetrable veil.

One must give a huge round of applause, however, to fest maestro Biraghi for declining to shy away from controversy at Taormina. The Spanish competition film El Caso Almería (The Almería Case) may be no great shakes as a stretch of celluloid, but it thunders provocatively about, investigating the murder of a General in Madrid and the tentacles of political conspiracy that spread (says the film) across the Iberian land-mass. Pedro Costa Musze directs, and Agustín Gonzales as the lawyer hero acts with an egg-bald pate, a walrus moustache and a frown that could fry a frog at fifty yards. The gleaming photography by Jose luis Alcaine (of El Sur) shows that even a shoestring budget can be twined into decorative and purposeful patterns.

Hand in hand with the encouragement to controversy, Taormina also makes brave bids to import some glit and glam into the southern sun each year. Behold, for example, the international jury, whom the fest organisers hope will sparkle even as the sunlit sea and who were this year headed by Hollywood diva Alexis Smith (of Losey's The Sleeping Tiger and TV's Dynasty). Smith looked stunning on opening night in a slit-skirt gown that revealed one leg which – presumably like the other – custom hath not staled nor age withered.

Also swanning into view at various celebrity guest-togethers were Ben Gazzara, Ingrid Thulin, Ugo Tognazzi, Ida di Benedetta and, if we may be allowed a moment of fancy, the shade of Joseph Losey. For the late great Joseph was honoured by a retrospective, simultaneous with the festival, held in nearby Messina and also by a Taormina symposium in which various transglobal critics were invited to slice up portions of the Losey genius.

Also instrumental in raising the festival's glamour quotient was the Second American Film Week. Five of 19ß4's front-line Hollywood movies were sent into action, of which the three best have already opened in Britain – Splash, Beat Street and Romancing The Stone – but were new to the Italians, who cheered warmly in the open air theatre. New to everyone were Reckless and Purple Hearts, of which we shall no doubt hear more though I would frankly prefer to hear less.

The first, James Foley's Reckless, is a ludicrously inflated romance between 'schoolgirl' Daryl Hannah and devilish tearaway fellow-student Aidan Quinn who courts her with a mixture of post-Brando Method mumbling, death-defying motorcycle stunts and credulity-defying clichés. However the sheeny night-time photography by Michael Ballhaus, Fassbinder's old lenser, is tremendous.

The second Purple Hearts, is Sidney J. Furie's attempt to depict what Press hand-outs tend to call an "intimate love story" against which Press hand-outs tend to call the "tapestry" of an international war. The war here is Vietnam, which is about as appropriate and tasteful a setting for a glutinous Hollywood romance as Dachau would be for a commercial on the joys of gas cooking. Ken Wahl and Cheryl Ladd are the star-strafed lovers, an army doctor and nurse respectively, the dialogue deserves an award for idiocy beyond the call of duty, and the Ladd Company sent Taormina a scratchy, jumpy work-print – which must say something about what they thought either of the film or the festival. (This is one print I would like to work on. Pass me my machete!).

On the subject of English-speaking films let us pass into pleasure and celebrate the four quirkily-assorted pics that graced the Competition. Rafal Zielinsky's Hey, Babe! from Canada, to begin with the dodgiest, is a showbiz melodrama with plenty of tastebud-tingling fizz, though you have to pay for it with some indigestible mawkishness en supplement. It's like drinking champagne from a slipper and then being told you have to eat the slipper as well. Yasmine Bleeth plays the New York punkette and aspiring dancer whose rebellious ways are channelled into talent by bibulous ex-Broadway agent Buddy Hackett, who here tends to resemble the Three Stooges horribly rolled into one. Still, you can't say director Zielinksy doesn't try. The film is plastered inches thick with emotion – tragedy, comedy, sentiment – like a New York tube train after a heavy night of graffiti work. Overdone but oddly compulsive.

Marva Nabili's Nightsongs is contrastingly minimalist: scenes from the life of an immigrant Chinese family trying to make ends meet in Manhattan. Iranian-US director Nabili, however, doesn't try to make ends meet at all. Each scene fades out into blackness and then a new scene begins, and it's as if we're watching a series of separate movies. And as with separate movies some are better than others. The young boy's embroilment in street gangs and the old man's yattery Mah Jong sessions are fun and believable. But the Vietnamese lady cousin's voice-off recitals of her own mercilessly purple poetry, while the camera kills time by pounding the streets or prowling the home, should have been torn out and stamped on in the cutting room. Two machetes, please.

From New Zealand came Bruce Morrison's Constance, merry, majestic and Art Deco. Photographed like a series of knock-out colour magazine covers, it details the tale of – yes – Constance (Donogh Res); a tall, bonny beautiful girl who dreams of Hollywood and the haut monde and can't bear smalltown Kiwi society. She flounces, seduces, wears hairstyles based on Gilda, is rude to her mother and drives fast cars. Despite these clear evidences of insanity, the Kiwis are patient and only at the close does this Antipodean Jezebel, this Mae West of the South East, get her come-uppance-and-see-me-some-time. A funny, imperious flick. Lindsay Shelton, that admirable chap who's marketing director for the N.Z. Film Commission, accepted a special jury prize on behalf of Morrison who was absent making his new film.

But the best English-speaking movie, no doubt about it, was Britain's own Secret Places – with its perfect leisurely pacing and beautiful pale and spectral photography. It's coals to Newcastle, of course, to write more about director Zelda Barron's tale of girls, school and World War 2 since it has already opened in Britain and Ms Barron has already won an award for Best Screenplay at the Oxford Film Festival. Taormina complemented this nicely by awarding a Best Actress prize to Tarak MacGowran.

Many thanks to everyone concerned with making the 15th TAOFEST a success and especially the friendly and courteous citizens of Sicily. Until next year, Felice Auguri.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.