AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
TAORMINA FILM FESTIVAL – 1986
ARBORIAL EXCESS, CANINE CRITICISM
by Harlan Kennedy
Taormina, Sicily, seemed a place for the brave or foolish to visit this year. To the south, a certain Libyan colonel known affectionately as "cane insano" had us within easy missile range. To the west, in Palermo, the biggest Mafia trial in history was in progress, with more than 400 concrete-shoe manufacturers facing the music. And all around Taormina itself, the hills were alive with the sound of Michael Cimino shooting The Sicilian. The sound? Well, the deafening silence actually. Closed-set strictures made the production as elusive as its hero, the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano, celebrated in the famous song: "They seek him here! They seek him there! They finally give up and go to have a pizza"
Mount Etna, the world's finest volcano was sulky, moody, and dormant – far from the bubbling scarlet pimple, or thrower-up of ill-considered lava, we all knew and loved in 1984. But even Etna looked down on a troubled Mediterranean. Among the yachts, a warship swung at anchor in full view of journalists and guests guzzling lunch by the hotel pool down in Capotaormina. Helicopters frequently buzzed overhead. Many suspected that the hardware had been lined up by the festival, to force us to go to the films. Some journalists have been known to be reluctant to do this. In late afternoon, after a vinous lunch, they lie marinaded and barbecued at poolside, in grave danger of being skewered by nearsighted waiters who mistake them for kebab meat.
Yet the films in Taormina are no hardship, since festival director Guglielmo Biraghi always gets the mix right. Every year at least one masterpiece comes out of left field; and this year it was Almacica di Desolato from the Dutch Antilles.
Clean your spectacles for this one: the visuals are astonishing. Fauve-edged Caribbean primitivism meets fuzzed luminosity à la David Watkin as we whirl through a story of magic, witchcraft, flight, murder and childbirth. In old Curacao at the turn of the century, a young priestess (Mariane Rolle) sworn to chastity falls in love with a spirit man from the underworld and bears his child. Pursued by her village's wrath, she hightails across the landscapes and in and out of a Glauber Rocha-style movie also boasting song, dance, pageantry, and full-frontal symbolism. Meanwhile, her child dies and enters the mystic realm of the unborn, and the audience's preconceptions of Caribbean cinema die and enter the realm of the hitherto unconceived.
The film blends the religious with the everyday, the sensual with the spiritual, as if we're in an undivided evolutionary dawn where the schism between man the animal and man the angel has not yet been born.
Filmgoers brought up to be polite about Third World movies whose visuals resemble old dishcloths can only marvel at the images here. Many exteriors have a hothouse surreality, as if shot on a soundstage. There are painted, expressionist skydrops and an elasticity of perspective between high-focus foregrounds and lyrically diffused backgrounds. (Many scenes seem to be in 3-D). Throughout, the colors glow and twist as if painted with watercolors that are still in flux. Director Felix De Rooy, an ex-art student, also production-designed the movie, and on this evidence he's the most excitingly developed new eye to have emerged in world cinema.
Around the splendors of this colossal oddity, the lone and level also-rans stretch far away. Charles Gormley's Heavenly Pursuits is a gentle tale of miracles in a Scottish school. Self-deprecating teacher Tom Conti insists that the humdrum, everyday 'miracles' he works with backward kids are more important than the wacko series of happenings – his own survival of a 50-foot fall, a crippled girl who walks again – which are being cried up as God-given by the media. Colleague Helen Mirren supports him. Gormley's pic, likable and invertebrate, has plenty of irony but too little iron.
Its companion movie from the British isles, Ireland's Eat The Peach, is about a stunt motorcyclist (Stephen Brennan) who sees Elvis Presley's Roustabout on TV and builds himself a "wall of death": i.e. 'a giant' centrifugal drum for racing around sideways. The film lost Sarah Miles early on – her star cameo shot to attract sponsorship ended on the cutting-room floor – and it clearly lost its direction not much later. It becomes a centrifugal action gimmick for the skimpily sketched story and characters to race around in ever-diminishing circles. Peter Ormrod directed, John Kelleher produced, and both co-wrote.
In the please-stand-clear-we-are-completely-crazy category of movies – a beloved Taormina perennial – there was Tunisia's Rih Essed (Man of Ashes), Belgium's Springen (Jump), and the French-Swiss coproduction (in English), The Last Song.
The first, written and directed by Nouri Bouzid, has childhood rape, compulsive flashbacks, cat-swinging, and several other things to take Aunt Edna to. Many lauded the bold blows struck for liberalism and tolerance, including . a sympathetic role in an Arab film for an aged Jewish seer. But all in all – as its tormented young hero (Imed Malaal) flits about Tunis pursued by his own and his country's traumas and by a tiresomely handheld camera – Bouzid shows that in modern cinema you can now have not only spaghetti Westerns but couscous psychodramas.
Jean-Pierre de Decker's Springen is not so much couscous, more bang-bang, as the sound of a film-maker repeatedly shooting himself in the foot accompanies this would-be surreal tale of an old people's home where everyone has his daydreams realized. The film's aspirations toward poetic profundity are undone by its hectoring, symbolic semaphore, whereby every character (the general, the politician, the opera singer) comes wearing or waving an existential identity tag.
But fasten your seatbelts. These two pictures are as masterworks compared to The Last Song. With a plot trying to cross Citizen Kane and Eddie and the Cruisers, French helmer Dennis Berry follows a pair of sexily disheveled lifeforms (Gabrielle Lazure and Scott Renderer) as they investigate the strange death of rock singer Billy Steel. Place: Paris, France.
Was Billy murdered? Was he gay? And what is the secret of Anna Karma's participation, who coscripted the movie and wrote herself a kamikaze comeback role as a French chanteuse? She cannot sing (move over, Jeanne Moreau in Querelle), she cannot persuade Berry to put the camera in the right places, and she cannot save a movie that is shot in impenetrable murk and staggers from one ill-dubbed mid-Atlantic dialogue scene to the next.
Taormina's specialty has long been Babel-like co-productions like this, in which two or more countries fight over a movie's cultural identity like cats over a fish bone. Fancy a Kuwaiti-Scottish political thriller with Flemish dialogue? Or a Chinese Western bankrolled in the Caymans and scripted in Sanskrit? Taormina is for you.
At least Florian Furtwangler's popular Tommaso Blu, a German film with Italian dialogue, makes up for its complex pedigree with a dead simple message. Too simple for my taste, as its left-wing sexist fatso of a hero (Alessandro Haber) inveighs against his factory job, fucks anything female that moves, and ends up becoming a dog. The message is: it's a dog's life being a member of the oppressed proletariat, so why not behave like one and/or turn into one? Woof, woof.
To this bowl of marrowbone-enriched Marxism – Italian audiences loved it, and it was the second most packed competition pic in Taormina – I prefer Pieter Verhoeff s De Droom (The Dream), a stalwart Dutch historical film with Frisian dialogue, or Federico Bruno's English-dubbed Black Tunnel from Italy. This was the most packed competition pic in Taormina, with a cheerfully obscure thriller plot pounded into vivacity by a music track including Orffs "Carmina Burana."
And a mighty burst of applause, please, for Argentina's Malayunta. A free-living, probably gay sculptor share-lets his apartment to a puritanical, middle-aged couple – a fastidious man and his spinsterish sister. Soon the normal tensions of abode-sharing escalate to bondage, torture, and murder, and the Pinteresque Hispano-fable of interlopement has grown into a whopping parable about power play, political cruelty, and the desaparecidos. Directed by Jose Santiso, the film is tight as a glove, tough as a fist, and the best Argentinian movie since The Official Story.
Wandering into the byways and faubourgs of the festival, the most intriguing oddity outside the competition was God Slot, a video documentary assembling off-air footage of sundry American TV evangelists. The film's maker, a young woman who wished to be identified only as `Z; has combed the networks for all the hot gospelers she could find and baked them all up in this hilarious, horrific video pie. One of these preacher-folk – Pat Robertson – announced that he was going to be a presidential contender. Why? Because a hurricane was approaching Virginia, and he got down on his knees and prayed that it would go away. And it did. Lawdy lawdy. Since God had taken care of that hurricane, it must be a sign that he meant this guy to take care of America. Etc., etc.
This gave me pause for thought, and so did Ms. Z's video. After three or four minutes of mature consideration, I decided it was time to fight the raging tide of the Moral Majority at the ballot box: I am throwing my own hat in the ring for the U.S. presidency. I'm concerned about life on Earth, and I'm not afraid of it. I worry about the guy who wants to nuke "Evil Empires" – we've already got that, and it's only one small step for a man who turns back hurricanes to turning back incoming missiles after the button's been pressed. Some of those evangelists make Reagan look like a Democrat and Star Wars like yesterday's technology.
What better start for a presidential hopeful than to oversee the spread of American movie culture into the European mainland? This year's American Film Week at Taormina, the festival's fourth, made the open-air Greco-Roman theatre – "More stars in our sky than in an MGM photo call" – crackle and sparkle to such boxoffice big ones as Su e Giu in Beverly Hills, Poltergeist 2, L Atra Dimensione, and F/X – Effetto Mortale. As ever, the U.S. movies were dubbed into Italian for the audience of 20,000 so that, for example, the dog in Beverly Hills barked not "Woof woof" but "Woof-a woof", with an expressive thumb-to-middle-finger gesture of the right paw.
At Taormina this year, there was a marathon talk-in in the gardens of the 15th Century Palazzo Corvaja, the festival's headquarters. It accompanied the Brian De Palma retrospective and the publication of an Italian book on De Palma. As the book's authors expatiated on in polysyllabic Italian, a tree visibly grew taller behind them and a dog, who had been listening intently from a nearby balcony, yawned and fell asleep. Guest chairperson Lynda Myles, formerly of the Pacific Film Archive and Edinburgh Filmfest, sat with a smile of deep-frozen interest which must in the circumstances be called heroic.
The publication, at last bounced into everyone's hands, proved to be a handy filmography of the De Palma oeuvre, slightly shorter than the discussion preceding it. The book is Brian De Palma: Il Fantasma Della Cineteca by Ninni Panzera and Carmelo Marsbello. Recommend it to all your friends.
The admirable Miss Myles was also a member of the eight-person jury, spearheaded by Nagisa Oshima, who passed judgment this year on who would cop the Golden Charybdis. When the white smoke finally came out of the chimney at the Sant' Andrea Hotel, the decision was – Man Of Ashes by Tunisia's Nouri Bouzid.
Who says there is any justice in the world? Now you see why I am having to run for President. This year, Taormina. Two years hence, America. After that, we'll talk.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE OCTOBER 1986 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved..