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Helen Barlow reports on a festival which is well out of the ordinary; it’s held in an ancient Sicilian amphitheatre and premiered the unfinished Australian-made drama, Till Human Voices Wake Us, starring Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter. Plus it has an active volcano, on cue …

If you are going to have a film festival in the height of summer (29 June-7 July) you might as well have it outdoors, so there's probably no greater venue than the 2000-year-old Greco-Roman amphitheatre in the Sicilian beach resort of Taormina. It kicked off this year with a concert by Bosnian Emir Kusturica, and his No Smoking band, and featured a work in progress screening of the Australian film, Till Human Voices Wake US.

Situated at the edge of the town and overlooking the Mediterranean, the amphitheatre screens movies every night as audiences watch from beneath the glow of an always sparky Mount Etna.

Emir Kusturica, the leftie film-maker best known for his Cannes Festival winner, Underground, and who this year presented his Super 8 Stories (a film focusing on the band), was in the middle of a European tour with the band that would culminate in a concert at the G8 environmental summit in Genoa at the end of July. As a bass player in the band, Kusturica laconically chewed on a cigar as he played, and displayed the charm he has shown in his acting, as in last year's The Widow of St Pierre and he recently completed Double Down for Neil Jordan.

“I want to transfer the energy of my movies to music”

"I want to transfer the energy of my movies to music," he said, and the band then went on to demonstrate what he meant, performing its high energy "unza unza music", or Balkan punk, or punk-anarchico, as one Italian wrote. Formed by frontman and vocalist, Nelle Karajilic in 1980 (Kusturica has been with the band since 1986) No Smoking comprises musicians from all the Balkan nations, and encapsulates Kusturica's ethos of being all in together. As with the music from his films (that they include in their repertoire) the band adheres largely to traditional sounds.

"Irreverent and revolutionary music must take its strength from local traditions," Kusturica said. "I think that the horns of Serbian gypsies are the sound most loaded with energy that you will hear in Europe."

From Australia came the world premiere of Till Human Voices Wake Us, directed by Michael Petroni, starring Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter. Taking its title from a line in T.S. Elliott's The Love Songs of J. Alfred Prufrock, the film, set in the Victorian countryside, tells of a happy young man whose young girlfriend dies, but she then comes back to visit him in his adulthood, when he is rather miserable. He also has an unseemly beard and moustache.

“intimate and intense”

"It was Guy Pearce's idea to play the character as physically cold, repressed and emotionally cut off," explained the film's American producer, Andrew Deane (also the producer of See Spot Run, starring David Arquette) at the film's press conference. He then proceeded to ask the assembled journalists what they thought of the film, and the Italians agreed that they preferred the first half of the movie when the characters were young. Deane went on to admit that the film was unfinished, that the music needed toning down and that the first and second parts would be interwoven somehow, so that we see the stars more from the beginning.

So who is Michael Petroni? He's an Australian-born, Hollywood-based screenwriter in his early 30's, with high profile credits: The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys for Jodie Foster; Revelation for George Clooney; Queen of the Damned-Anne Rice's sequel to Interview with The Vampire; and he is currently writing a supernatural thriller for Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis, which is why he wasn't in Taormina. "That's too big a commercial venture for Michael to direct," said Deane. "He prefers to direct stories that are intimate and intense, and here he wanted to make a film with a poetic mood."

He called Till Human Voices Wake Us "a small Aussie film", and indeed it is: Helena Bonham Carter sports a passable Australian accent, even if she really doesn't say much. "Everyone wanted to do this movie," said Deane, "other than Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson. People like Toni Collette wanted to do it, but we had to bring in an international name to raise the finance."

“the film exerted a presence in more ways than expected”

Also in the program from Australia was the animated film version of Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding, featuring the voices of John Cleese, Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill Toni Collette, Jack Thompson and John Laws. So little is known of the story internationally that the film was down as British in the Festival program.

One of the Festival highlights was Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux, and those extra 53 minutes really make a difference. He will attend the film's Rome premiere later in the year, while in Taormina cinematographer Vittorio Storaro was on hand to talk about the film that he shot 22 years ago. For its July 4 screening on the night of a full moon, the film exerted a presence in more ways than expected. In the press release issued prior to the Festival, Festival director, Felice Laudadio, had said, "It will be thrilling to see the American bombardments on the banks of the Mekong, and the helicopters flying to the notes of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, while in the background lava courses down Mount Etna in eruption."

What happened? Mount Etna did erupt! Loud booms were heard around the town as fluorescent lava streamed down the mountainside, that can be viewed from most of Sicily. Locals said that it's actually easy to get out of the way if the lava does come all the way to town. In fact it moves very slowly - unlike in the movies. The volcano went to sleep, like the rest of us, after a while.

“a fresh, insightful look”

As part of an American Independence day double, the Festival also screened Joel Schumacher's Tigerland, set in a boot camp at the time of the Vietnam War and featuring stunning Irish newcomer, Colin Farrell, who is currently filming Minority Report for Steven Spielberg. Somehow Shumacher gets it right when he does it smaller - Tigerland is a gripping tale of a renegade soldier who helps his weaker friends get out of the military, though he never manages to escape himself. Jennifer Jason Leigh was also on hand to present Anniversary Party, a fresh, insightful look into what happens at a party if everyone (including Kevin Kline and Gwyneth Paltrow) takes ecstasy and bears their souls.

The other prominent Festival entry was Enigma, a British film that shows how a British WWII team cracked the enigma code first-and not the Americans, as the American film, U571, suggests. Produced by Mick Jagger, Enigma stars Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott. Other English-language selections included the British teen thriller, The Hole, starring Thora Birch (American Beauty); Edges of The Lord, a Polish film shot in English and starring Willem Dafoe and Haley Joel Osment; and the British WWII war movie set in The Pacific, To End All Wars, starring Robert Carlyle and Kiefer Sutherland. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang starred Jacqueline McKenzie as the girlfriend of hitman Stellan Skarsgard, but it was just another disappointing British gangster comedy mish mash.

The secondary Festival focus was on Italian cinema, yet there was only one new Italian film on offer, Ettore Scola's Concorrenza Sleale (Unfair Competition). There were retrospectives of the work of Luigi Comencini, Etore Scola and Franco Indovina. The festival opened with a screening of Scola's C'eravamo tanto amati (We All Loved Each Other So Much) which has been recently restored by the Phillip Morris Association project. Scola received the first of the Taormina Arte Diamond Nastri d'Argento) awards, which are given throughout the Festival. Other recipients this year were: Giancarlo Giannini, Vittorio Storaro, Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alberto Sordi and Miriam Makeba.

“the Festival lacked stars to give the event a touch of glamour”

In general though the Festival lacked stars to give the event a touch of glamour. During the first days, the presence Nanni Moretti created a certain energy, as the usually non-media friendly director proved he can be more friendly to the Italian press after winning the Cannes Festival's Palme d'Or. It clearly meant a lot to him, especially since with The Son's Room, he veered away from his usual comedic tone.

Gina Lollobrigida demonstrated she was as much the diva as ever by captivating the crowd in a glittering low-cleavaged dress, and explained that in the past 10 years she had returned to her first love, sculpting, and promised to have an exhibition of her work soon.

The final day of the Festival was dedicated to African cinema and to the plight of African children suffering from AIDS. Makeba sang at a closing concert and her films, Sarafina and The Voices of Sarafina, were screened.

Published July 12, 2001

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Guy Pearce

The Magic Pudding - Trailer

Apocalypse Now Redux

Tigerland - Trailer

My Brother Tom

Anniversary Party


Emir Kusturica

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