By Oliver C. Speck.
In June 2012, it seemed that the 58th Taormina Film Fest might be the last one: too many changed schedules, too many bad projections and too many uninspired films marred what was once one of Europe’s premiere international film festivals. After being moved twice, the festival finally took place in a reduced format. Severe budget cuts and internal disagreements caused the American film critic Deborah Young to leave the festival, which she had headed for 5 years, on relatively short notice. The new artistic director since 2012, Mario Sesti is a film critic, author and journalist from Rome with prior experience in festival organization. As the main curator, he shares responsibilities with the festival’s general manager, Tiziana Rocca. Putting a leadership team in charge of the Taormina Film Fest appears to have been a fortuitous choice, as the festival was traditionally always a strange doublet: here a display of Italian-style glitz, with stars and paparazzi, there an outlook to other cinemas, especially from the Mediterranean region, often featuring socially engaged films. Ms. Rocca, a striking figure in her designer clothes, is in tune with the glamorous side of the festival, at ease on stage with celebrities such as Ornella Muti and Prince Albert II of Monaco, both of whom came to Taormina this June to promote their respective humanitarian aid projects. The scholarly Sesti, in turn, is a skilled interviewer who arrives prepared, asking in-depth questions about artistic choices, and an adept curator of film.
This year’s 59th Taormina Film Fest appears to be back on track, offering something for the seeker of glamour as well as of artistic thrills. Back in force are the black limousines shuttling international stars—such as Russell Crowe, Jeremy Irons and Meg Ryan—to the festival. Ron Moss—surprisingly popular in Italy—made an appearance, as did Italian B and C-list celebrities. Back were the crowds as well, star-gazing outside hotels or waiting for entry into Taormina’s Teatro Antico, the stunning Greco-Roman amphitheater overlooking the Ionian Sea where the main screenings take place. Two revered Italian directors, Giuseppe Tornatore and Francesco Rosi (the latter one via Skype from Rome), discussed their work at the Campus Taormina, where their presentation was attended mostly by students from local universities and high schools. Other, so-called “Master ” or “Tao classes” were taught—among others—by Jeremy Irons and Meg Ryan. Irons came in his role as executive producer and star of Trashed (Directed by Candida Brady), an attempt to use the info-documentary formula of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth to raise awareness about the global waste problem. While Mario Sesti was able to deftly engage Irons such that the audience was able to gain an insight into the reclusive British actor, Sesti’s craft did not succeed with Meg Ryan, who appeared nervous and ill at ease on the small stage. Sadly, James Gandolfini passed away during his trip to Italy, just a few days before he was scheduled to lead one of these classes.
The festival was bookended by the Italian premiere of two American mega-productions, Man of Steel by Zack Snyder and The Lone Ranger by Gore Verbinski. The Verbinski/Depp attempt to repeat the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean series works uneasily around the racial issues by putting a postmodern twist on the main character, Tonto, as interpreted by Johnny Depp in his silliest, most self-referential “I-know-I-am-overacting” mode. While The Lone Ranger provided, at least in parts, genuine Hollywood entertainment, Man of Steel, which opened the festival, made the problems of current American mainstream cinema painfully obvious. Maybe it was the ancient ruins of the Theatro Antico that made the fetishistic repetition of the act of felling skyscrapers, one after another, in a thinly disguised New York appear so shallow and pointless. But the obvious political allegory of General Zod, who wants to transform the world into an autocratic society, and the farm boy from Kansas as the only one who can stop his terror, pits one fascistic leader against another superpower. As the film reminds us on several occasions, both adversaries are equally matched, only Superman’s moral superiority can tip the scales. And the core of his moral strength lies in another fetish, the paternalistic structure of a 1950s America that never was: all threats, all diversity, dissonance and difference are covered up by the image of the wise father (impersonated by Kevin Costner) who fixes his own pick-up truck and carefully and methodically wipes his hands before he dispenses clear instructions on what is right and what is wrong to his adoptive son, and to the audience.
Two more American films featured in the festival use open allusions to 9/11 and the “War on Terror” to promote an American exceptionalism, a firm belief in the United States’ moral superiority. Just as the famous film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), that inspired it, Killing Season (Directed by Mark Steven Johnson) features a duel with bow and arrow between an American hunter and a strongly accented foreigner. Benjamin Ford (Robert De Niro), an American ex-special forces colonel who freed Bosnian concentration camp inmates during the war in former Yugoslavia, is shocked by the atrocities of the war, and he and his unit decided to execute the Serbian murderers. Emil Kovac (John Travolta), one of the Serbian concentration camp guards who survived, is now seeking revenge. The duel plays out deep in the Appalachian Mountains, to which Ford has retired, and again, the adversaries are evenly matched, skilled in hunting with bow and arrow, hand to hand combat and survival tactics. Niro’s American is a man of action and few words, while Travolta attempts to outdo The Most Dangerous Game’s Count Zaroff in flamboyance and verbosity. Indeed, Killing Season takes the cliché of the bad-guy-who-talks-too-much to a whole new level. It comes as no surprise that, in the end, the moral superiority of the American prevails.
The third film in this unofficial post-9/11 trilogy is Java Heat by Conor Allyn. Set in Indonesia, the film is a take on the classic buddy/cop-genre. Indeed, the director, who came to the festival to speak about his film, cited the eighties’ success Red Heat as one major influence. Almost as muscular as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the American Jake (Kellan Lutz) teams up with the reluctant Indonesian police lieutenant Hashim (Ario Bayu) to track down whoever is behind a series of high-profile terrorist attacks. As is quickly revealed, the pedophile Frenchman Malik (Mickey Rourke) uses a group of Muslim Jihadists for his evil plans. Java Heat takes the James Bond cliché of the foreign-guy-who-pulls-the-strings to a whole new level, as Malik’s immorality even disgusts the leader of the Jihadists.
The formal features of these three films could not be more different. Man of Steel’s incredibly detailed, computer generated images create the strange beauty of a foreign planet and the now-familiar landscape of a city after a terrorist attack. The one positive aspect of Killing Season is the beautiful cinematography that turns the deep woods into a metaphysical stage. And Java Heat is filmed mostly with the generic hand-held camera and hectic cuts that are supposed to emulate barely edited news footage. What these films do have in common, however, is not an accidental side-effect of a new cynicism post-Obama: the moral relativism that animates these three films is their main point. Indeed, the sources of terror—a General compelled to recreate his lost world, a Serbian officer whose own family was massacred and a noble Jihadist who sacrifices his live to save Hashim’s wife and children—are provided with completely understandable motifs, as well as the clear moral compass of a soldier that must ensure the success of the mission. In all these films, the terrorist is no longer a source of evil striving for world domination, but an equally matched antagonist who forces the American to make a choice and suspend the rules of law and revert back to a Hobbesian State of Nature.
But, of course, nobody has to travel all the way to Sicily to see films full of explosions that also play in the local multiplex. One focus of the festival is recent films from Russia, thanks to an agreement with Russia’s “Open World Fund” and its founder and director Yelena Romanova, who chose the films to be featured at the festival. These films brought the much-needed antidote to Hollywood excess exactly because they anchor their stories in a strong ethical stance instead of the above-mentioned moral relativism, whose major flaw is that one is supposed to remain “objective” and “neutral,” a false position that does not reflect real political situations in the world (except in places where the political has in fact become largely irrelevant, like the USA), or to choose sides on the basis of one’s cultural or ethnic affiliation, and not on the basis of a clearly articulated set of ethics. For example, showcasing the unique talent of the Russian auteur Renata Litvinova, Boginya: kak ya polyubila/Goddess: How I Fell in Love (2004) and the recent Poslednyaya skazka Rity/Rita’s Last Fairy Tale succeed in unfolding the perspective on death of their respective female protagonists. The 2004 film is a feminist re-interpretation of Jean Cocteau’s famous Orphée (we find death listening to radio messages in her black limousine), while the second film unfolds a young woman’s journey to death in dreamy images. In both cases, the film eschews moral relativism in favor of a particular perspective or position with which, or against which, one can argue. Indeed, the writer-director-actress passionately defended her romantic vision of art in one of the festival’s “Tao Classes.”
Natalia Nazarova’s and Aleksandr Kasatkin’s Doch/The Daughter uses the serial killer genre to paint a bitter portrait of contemporary Russia. Every single institution—family, school, police, social services—is failing its constituency and appears hollowed out, an empty shell in which, for example, the investigating police officer barely goes through the motions expected from him. The killer who preys on teenage girls whom he punishes for what he sees as immoral behavior seems to be the only one compelled to act. His antagonist is the orthodox priest whose daughter he has killed. Bound by the confessional secret, the priest cannot turn to the police, but even this bereaved father does not appear to possess the energy to actively seek to prevent further killings. The directors manage to translate this mood of emptiness and exhaustion into the formal features of the film as well. The run-down buildings of this mid-size provincial town and its unpleasant inhabitants are shown in washed-out colors, filmed by a weary camera. The only reprieve is the earnest face of the eponymous daughter who struggles with the care for her young brother, puberty and her first love. In the end, it is an act of compassion by the serial killer that introduces the element of grace into the story.
The 59th Taormina Film Fest also concentrated on its roots by featuring Sicilian directors and films shot in Sicily. Here, the audience encountered one of the best films of the festival. Acqua fuori dal Ring/Ring of Water is the result of a fascinating cross-cultural journey. The young German-American director, Joel Stangle, found the ideal setting for his socially engaged film in Catania, where his sister, Esther Stangle, with whom he co-write the screenplay, is now living. The skillful cinematography and nuanced directing of the cast—all lay actors whom the director found in this Sicilian big city—make this a welcome reminder of what cinema can still do. Indeed, the film understands the important distinction between authenticity and realism. It is one thing to cast a young man from a displaced persons’ camp as the refugee who will set off a tragic chain of events or an amateur boxer as a troubled version of himself as Acqua fuori dal Ring has done. But the film succeeds in translating this authenticity into a realism of the gesture: the silent desperation of the pregnant immigrant whose husband gets deported and the boxer’s frustration are expressed in their milieu with an impeccable timing. As Stangle explained, the language barrier made it easier for him to concentrate on the visuals, which are striking and add to the film’s haunting beauty reminiscent of the heyday of Italian Neo-realism.
Like last year, the 2013 Taormina festival attempted to attract new audiences with comedies and horror films. An Argentinian comedy was able to get new laughs out of old material. Dos màs dos/2+2 by Diego Kaplan, tells the tale of two couples who attempt to spice up their lives by exchanging partners. While predictably somebody gets hurt as soon as emotions come into play, the film is carried by a convincing cast and comic timing that brings the couples’ dynamic to the forefront. The film takes pains not to offend anybody, setting the film amongst an idealized upper-class in which perfect equal opportunity for men and women has been achieved. Whereas screwball comedies, the generic predecessors of this film, manage to use similar upper-class setting to good critical effect, Dos màs dos ends up amusing but innocuous.
Two recent films from France might not have been the best choices. Les Seigneurs/Dream Team by Olivier Dahan, marks one of the regional, fish-out-of-water comedies that have been churned out following the enormous success of Dany Boon’s Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis/Welcome at the Ch’tis (2008). Les Seigneurs sends disgraced soccer star Patrick Orbéra (José Garcia) to a small island in Brittany, France. Sentenced by a wise judge to coach the local soccer club with the help of his former teammates, the banishment from the capital leads, no surprise here, first to socio-cultural misunderstandings and goofy slapstick situations, and then to a complete change of heart and integration into the harmony of the provincial community. More ambitious than this uninspired comedy is La fille du 14 Juillet/The Girl from the 14th of July. The film by Antonin Peretjatko aims at a critique of the current political situation in Europe by mashing-up two diametrically opposed genres of the sixties and seventies. The anarchic films by Francois Truffaut and Louis Malle, with their dead-pan voice-over, meet a pastiche of the popular beach comedies of the same time, with their overlapping storylines and comedia dell’arte characters. The genre of the beach comedy is probably more familiar to the European viewer—American audiences will think of Frankie Avalon here. La fille borrows the political allegory of the young couple on the run from Nouvelle Vague films, as well as the usual stock characters of the popular low budget films, including the genre-typical climactic party scene, where all conflicts are happily resolved. While the film takes stabs at the 1968 generation that now runs France, it fails because the film’s anarchic humor aims at types, not political structures as Truffaut, Malle and the early Godard were able to do.
The slow, sweeping camera of Oltre il guado/Across the River by Lorenzo Bianchini makes the best possible use of its location, the lonely mountainous region of Italy’s border with Serbia. Here, a lonely zoologist (Renzo Gariup), on a mission to record animals, stumbles upon an old and deadly secret. The denouement appears unfortunately like a copycat of recent Japanese horror films (the writers of Ring/Ringu and Honogurai mizu no soko kara/Dark Water should feel especially offended), but the fascinating sound design and the first 90 minutes add a spin to the genre. A larger Italian production also had its premiere at the festival. Cha cha cha teams the former supermodel, Eva Herzigova, and current Italian heartthrob, Luca Argentero, in a neo-noir that takes its inspiration from recent scandals. The mostly Italian audience that filled the amphitheater knew how to read the dispersed allusions to corruption cases and the widely publicized sex parties of recent years. The inspired cinematography paints Rome as a strange place, an Americanized city, where the only ethical forces are the lonely private eye and the mother who is grieving for her murdered son. While Herzigova as troubled trophy wife is surprisingly convincing, Argentero’s limited acting range is probably better suited for a TV production. In the end, director Marco Risi’s (son of Dino Risi) permanent nods to the generic conventions feel forced. Still, the audience expressed its gratitude for an entertaining film from Italy that had to compete with foreign crowd pleasers, such as Song for Marion by Paul Andrew Williams and Parental Guidance by Andy Fickman.
As mentioned above, the festival appears to be safe for now. Whether next year’s Taormina Film Fest will go back to a more traditional format of a competition instead of the showcase model is not clear. Of course, times are difficult for film festivals when social media/web marketing is certainly more important for the big players than a premiere or even a prize at an international film festival. A painful moment for a film fan, eager to see films from the Mediterranean area (for example, the 2011 winner, the brilliant Moroccan film Sur la planche/On the Edge by writer/director Leila Kilani), is certainly the loss of the festival’s international focus. The program was only distributed in Italian and the English version of the website is a badly edited stump. Some films were screened without English subtitles, and, most unfortunately, the interesting talks by Italian film scholars on varying topics (e.g. “The cinema of Truffaut”) were not translated. Hopefully, these issues can be resolved with a little planning and organizational effort, as well as some attention to the festival’s internet and social media presence, something that can only add to its two-fold mission.
Dr. Oliver C. Speck currently teaches Film Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. His scholarly writing focuses on narrative strategies and the representation of memory and history in French, German and other European cinema. He has published articles on Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Tom Tykwer and Michael Haneke. Dr. Speck’s recent book is entitled Funny Frames: The Cinematic Concepts of Michael Haneke (Continuum: New York, 2010).