by Harlan Kennedy



It is 30 years since Esther Williams last had dealings with the Ancient Roman Empire. Who could forget that stirring chorus from Jupiter's Darling, "Ha-nni-bal! (rum-ti-tum) Ha-nnib-bal!", when Esther, Howard Keel, and a large number of elephants sang and danced their way through Italy? It gave a whole new perspective on the Punic Wars. Now she was back in the sun-wracked splen­dor of the ancient world: namely Sicily. She lined up with Eva Marie Saint, Jaqueline Bisset, and Tony Curtis, the Taormina Film Festival's four guest stars from Hollywood. They were paraded around town in glittering earnest that this was the year the Taofest was out to become Italy's biggest showcase for new U.S. movies.

For this year's American Film Week at Taormina, the festival's third, many of the pics' perpetrators were flown in: Susan Seidelman of Desperately Seeking Susan; John Glen of A View to a Kill; Chuck Norris of Code of Silence; that crowd. In addition, Jack Valenti represented America with many a big smile, striped shirt, and message of interest. He even flashed his racket out on Center Court at Taormina's tennis club (6-0, 6-0, 6-0).

Nightly the U.S. movies were skywritten on the giant screen of the 2,000-year-old Greco-Roman theater. The honey-stoned bowl, cradled between sea and stars, rang to the gladiatorial duel between famous American stars and the Italian dialogue they were dubbed into. These incongruities didn't bother the 20,000-strong audiences ranged on the worn stone seats. They cheered the movies, and they cheered more loudly the makers and megastars brought shyly onto the platform to take a bow, including many luminaries from the Italian cinema: Gina Lollobrigida, wearing a sumptuous gown and cutaway smile; Giulietta Masina; Claudia Cardinale; Monica Vitti; Giancarlo Giannini; Lena Wertmuller (on the jury); Sergio Leone, in Taormina to open an exhibit of photos fromOnce Upon a Time in America.

Once offstage, they diversified fascinat­ingly. Three years ago in Taormina you could not part a cypress tree without find­ing Tennessee Williams behind it. This year you had only to take an innocent stroll through the San Domenico Hotel gardens to stumble upon Jaqueline Bisset. With the paparazzi popping their tungstens, Bisset was plugging her HBO film Forbidden. She was also praising Italy. "I love Italy," she said in answer to such questions as "Is there a mystical element to the infrastructure of your film?" and "What lured you to the role of the Silesian countess who defies the Nazis?" Pressed further, she would add, "I have always been a great admirer of Anto­nioni.

It's the sign of a true star that, like Garbo, her hair blows the wrong way when she stands on the edge of a ship or hotel terrace. Bisset's was blowing thus. So was Esther Williams' when I saw her standing by the pool at the San Domenico. The big ques­tion on everyone's lips at Taormina was: Will she go in? Esther kept us in suspense for several days, during which she merely inserted a discreet toe into the shallow end and smiled with effulgent courtesy at the press, most of whom were disguised (like me) as innocent passersby.

A critic cannot, however, stay at the shal­low end of events at a film festival; he must discover the matters of moment that lie beneath the surface mardi gras. I rang Jack Valenti. I asked him why Hollywood had booked this mass package holiday to Taor­mina.

VALENTI: Hi, Harlan. Nice to talk to you.

KENNEDY: Hello, Jack. Jack, why has Hollywood booked this mass package holi­day to Taormina?

VALENTI: Glad you asked me. We're here to give American films the biggest possible showcase before they begin their theatrical run in Italy. Were also working with Italian exhibitors to try and lengthen the movie season. At present most Italian theaters close at Easter and reopen in Sep­tember, due to lack of air-conditioning or the expense of providing it. It doesn't need to be that way. The audiences we've had in Taormina prove movies can be popular – and should be popular – the whole year round. So we're investing a lot of energy into this, the third American Film Week here, and we're already making plans for next year. Taormina is going to be the top launching pad for U.S. films into the Italian market.

So this was the Hollywood plan: to break into Italy from the south, like Garibaldi. No wonder they had brought Esther Williams with them. Memories of Hannibal and Howard Keel would completely confuse the opposition. They would expect the invasion to come from the north over the Alps, with large and clumsy beasts of bur­den like the new Burt Reynolds pic miracu­lously navigating the snow and ice.

But how would the world's stars and directors respond, once having entered Italy, when they discovered their offspring mixing interlingually and speaking with for­eign tongues?

"It's weeeeirrrd," Susan Seidelman told me over the phone. `An expert job," was John Glen's verdict on the dubbing of A View to a Kill. "The Italians are the best in the world at this. They got all the nuances, even to a change of tone whenever Roger Moore curls his lip!" And Chuck Norris, after seeing Il Codice del Silenzio, said, 'They must have gone through hundreds of guys – my character's voice sounded just like mine, even in Italian. And the theater is great. When you've heard 20,000 people cheering on your picture, it spoils you for Radio City Music Hall."

Nothing, though, could spoil me for Esther Williams. Back at the San Domenico pool I had prepared my boldest plan yet to catch her in flotante. Days of synchronized-swimming rehearsal with my friend Jill, during which I held my tape recorder arm-high above the water while backstroking at her side, prepared me for the watery interview. This would surely astound my publishers and secure the handsome advance I needed for my forth­coming biog, Dangerous When Esther.

But I had no sooner reached the Domenico gardens when I saw a crowd of paparazzi gathered round the pool. Their cameras were clicking like cicadas while something long, white, and surfy streaked back and forth in the water. This was bad news. If Esther was doing a high-speed crawl instead of a ladylike backstroke, I needed more time and a waterproof tape recorder. I went back to the hotel and the drawing board.

Every evening in Taormina, just when you thought life was one long star-hunt, there were the films. While playing Prince Charming to Hollywood, the Taofest also plays Svengali to world cinema: running a Main Competition for first and second works by new directors. Nightly in the San Nicolo cinema (converted puppet theater) and the Olimpia (sliding roof opens to stars, night breezes, and neighboring windows where Sicilian families scream, play, eat, and grind coffee) you may witness the teething pains of films from Norway, New Zealand, Russia, Britain, the Philippines, and the Ivory Coast.

Taormina has its share of clinkers each year. It would take a heart of anthracite not to giggle at John Reid's Leave All Fair, where Sir John Gielgud quavers miscastly through the role of John Middleton Murry, ex-husband of writer Katharine Mansfield (Jane Birkin). In sunlit French scenery J.M.M. recalls his life with Kath and their circle of ever-so-robust literary chums. "Lawrence and I used to shoulder our ruck­sacks and sally forth into the countryside;" croons Sir John, who looks unlikely to have shouldered anything more testing in his youth than a Vuitton picnic basket. This New Zealand film should have been made with a built-in laugh track.

We may also speed past such films as Tikoy Aguiluz' steamily catchpenny Ang Bangkero (Boatman), where a young man and woman try to make ends meet, more than figuratively, in Manila's live sex-show business; or Dutch director Dimitri Frenkel Frank's De Ijssalon (The Ice Cream Parlour), set in Nazi-occupied Hol­land, where Bruno Ganz and Renee Soutendijk wade through a tutti-frutti script knee-deep in winsome overemphasis.

Alessandro di Robilant's nuttyish film noir from Italy, Solo per Amore (Only for Love), was something else. "Brambilla has a friend called Bongo, who is a nasty semi-blind character. Madeddu, the policeman, madly in love with Brambilla, shoots him­self in front of her." For once the fractured literalism of a pidgin-English press synopsis captures the film's crazy-paved spirit. Weaving its way through such everyday matters as murder, voyeurism, suicide, and the drinking of dog's blood, the movie shows that even non sequiturs and near-insanity can be part of life's rich woof. E.M. Forster's "Only connect" here becomes a more Mediterranean "Only collide:" Robi­lant and his British cameraman, David Scott (both graduates of the London Film School), inflect street-life neo-realism with comic-strip costumes and cutting, and with a claustrophobic kismet where everyone keeps bumping into the last person he wants to. Larky, lissome, and original.

Hail also to Désiré Ecaré's Visage des Femmes (Faces of Woman), where femi­nism hits the Ivory Coast. Tribal costumes, karate, dancing, the economics of fish mar­kets, and red-hot sex in a river. What more would you want? And hail to Gianni Lepre's perky Oye for Oye (An Eye for an Eye), which marries, somewhat at the point of a shotgun, an insurance-fraud thriller with a Fassbinderish love tale between young Arab and older Norwegian lady.

The Golden Cariddi top prize went to Juzo Itami's Ososhiki (Funerals), a natty iconoclastic comedy about the Japanese way of death. Britain's Maggie Smith and Liz Smith both copped acting prizes for the pig pic A Private Function. These guer­dons were lavished on grateful recipients at the last-night gala in the Teatro Antico. Every year at this event, under a sparkling Mediterranean sky, three hours of insane televised show biz unfurl: dancing chorines, stand-up comics, ladies in leo­tards, pratfalling pagliacci. At the end the one moment of true magic happens: Every­one in the outdoor auditorium lights a can­dle in gratitude. As the flames multiply, it's like a convocation of fireflies, or the Ave Maria sequence in Fantasia seen through a kaleidoscope. There are more pinpoints of light than there are superstars gathered on the Teatro Antico stage.

The only cloud over Taormina's tri­umphs this year was the illness of fest chief Guglielmo Biraghi, who has built this event up from an egg-and-spoon race in the Sev­enties to a big-time, smooth-running festi­val. This year Biraghi lay in his Taormina hotel amid a spaghetti of drip-feeds suffer­ing a severe bout of sciatica. Midway he was rushed to a hospital in Messina and back. Felice auguri, Guglielmo, and the speediest possible recovery.

My final glimpse of the Taormina Festival was of Esther Williams. Or should have been. In the last hour before my taxi was due I headed to the Domenico. Unfortu­nately, when I got there, I was told that Signorina Williams had just flown back to America. I had missed her by minutes.

I turned away disgruntled. But I had not got far before a cloud of paparazzi were at my heels, clicking their lenses, flashing their pencils, and asking me questions in overlapping Italian. To my horror, I learned that they had seen me so often, a shyly retiring Galahad in the distant wake of Miss Williams, that they thought I was a fellow star and perhaps the lady's Mediterranean escort. I attempted roundly to disabuse them, but in the end I had to give up and hold a press conference.

PAPARAZZI [passim]: Is your relation­ship with Miss Williams personal, profes­sional, or artistic?/ Do you think the politi­cal attitudes of Million Dollar Mermaid are revisionist or Gramscian?/ Is Miss Williams planning a return to the cinema?

KENNEDY: I love Italy and have always been an admirer of Antonioni....







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.