Inside the glorious - and troubled - history of the Italian Taormina Film Festival

Inside the glorious – and troubled – history of the Italian Taormina Film Festival

If location really were everything, the Taormina Film Festival would be the largest in the world.

Here on “Isola bella” (Sicilian for “beautiful island”) you have it all: the sun, the sea and the sunsets that look CGI-ed in their beauty (one of the reasons The White Lotus chose the region as the backdrop for his final season). Above all, the volcano, Etna, with its explosions of fire and ash adds drama to the proceedings. The landscape is of palm trees and prickly pears and all the colors of the Mediterranean. The air smells of basil. The screenings of the festival take place in the amphitheater of the Ancient Theater, one of the largest historical Greek theaters in all of Sicily.

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It’s easy to understand why, back in 1955, the organizers decided to stage a film festival here. First in the city of Messina, from 1957 onwards and then moved to the nearby town of Taormina. And one look at the place explains why the stars kept coming. Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren, Cary Grant and Robert De Niro. This year’s harvest (Taormina 2023 festival runs until July 1) includes Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Mads Mikkelsen — who celebrated the Italian premiere of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny Sunday in Taormina — plus Bella Thorne, Zoe Saldana and Amber Heard, here at her first official outing after her stormy divorce and public legal wrangling with Johnny Depp, to promote her new independent film In the fire.

But there is a dark side to the Taormina festival: a troubled history of debt, corruption and bankruptcy, a legacy of stifling bureaucracy, political interference and behind-the-scenes battles for succession that have often thrown the event into chaos.

In the last 16 years, Taormina has had 13 artistic directors (for comparison, the Venice Film Festival has had a total of two: Marco Müller and Alberto Barbera). The last decade has seen almost constant upheaval and internal power struggles, with the festival nearly collapsing more than once.

And this year’s event saw a last-minute shuffle at the top, with directors Alessandra De Luca, Federico Pontiggia and Francesco Alò dropping in favor of two new bosses: co-artistic directors and executive directors Beatrice Venezi and Barrett Wissman. “This is year zero,” they said. “With us the Taormina Festival is reborn.” But to be reborn from what?

The “new” Taormina Film Festival

The two make an interesting pair. Venezi is an Italian classical conductor and composer, in a profession with few female stars. She is also a fervent supporter of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, elected in September to lead the country’s far-right government for decades. Venezi has appeared on stage with Meloni at political rallies and approved it online.

Beatrice Venice

Beatrice Venice

Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images for Disney

Shortly before Meloni’s election, in August 2022, Venezi was named director of the Taormina Arte Foundation, the organization that runs the film festival. He received the support of Nello Musumeci, then president of Sicily (the region provides half of the funding for the foundation, the other half comes from the municipality of Taormina) and is currently a minister in the Meloni government. Taormina’s mayor Mario Bolognari was not a fan of Venezi’s nomination and threatened to drop the city’s support for the festival. Not him, but his successor, Cateno De Luca, who like Bolognari is politically very much to the left of Meloni, yes. Taormina withdrew from the Taormina Arte Foundation just 10 days before this year’s festival.

For his co-artistic director, Venezi chose Barrett Wissmann, a Texas entrepreneur, concert pianist, and president of classical event management group IGM Artists (the two run in similar classical music circles). Wissmann has the story about him. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to his role in a securities fraud case in which investment firms paid bribes to manage New York State pension fund assets. He didn’t serve prison time.

“I’m not here to judge Barrett as a person, but only on his artistic profile,” Venezi said. “He has put together a respectable program and I’m happy about it. I’m not one to judge him.”

Taormina's new co-artistic director Barrett Wissman (left) welcomes Amber Heard to the 2023 festival.

Taormina’s new co-artistic director Barrett Wissman (left) welcomes Amber Heard to the 2023 festival.

Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

Goodbye Taormina Competition

Wissman IS IT was a very late addition to the festival. He only signed two and a half months ago. It was too late, in fact, to secure world premieres for a competing lineup, so the festival dropped the idea of ​​having a competition for its 68th edition.

This was stated by Ester Bonafede, superintendent of the Taormina Arte Foundation The regional elections in Sicily last October slowed down the approval process for the new management of the festival and she was “surprised that we managed to put together a festival in just two and a half months”.

That the organization of the Taormina festival was chaotic and last minute was no surprise. The event has a history of disruption.

A decade of stars (and chaos)

In 2012, the Taormina festival seemed to be on the brink. The public lenders of the foundation, at the time the Province of Messina, the Municipality of Taormina and the Municipality of Messina, had gone bankrupt. Messina, with debts of $262 million (€240 million), was facing default. Artistic director of the festival, ex Hollywood reporter International film editor Deborah Young, has resigned after five years in the job, citing “incompatible views” with the festival’s oversight body and concerns over the festival’s dwindling budget.

Agnus Dei, a private company managed by public relations expert Tiziana Rocca, stepped in to take over the running of the festival, with 90 percent of the funding coming from sponsorships and private sources.

«I made a completely private festival, financed by the sponsors, with 10 percent of the public contribution», says Rocca. “I’ve never had any money from the Sicily Region, because it was bankrupt at the time. It’s been a struggle.

But Rocca brought the stars: the 2013 festival opened with the Italian premiere of Zack Snyder Man of Steel with stars Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon and Russell Crowe in attendance. The 59th festival closed with Johnny Depp as protagonist The Lone Ranger.

The magic of Taormina itself, of the Ancient Theater in particular, attracted them.

«There is no director who was not moved by seeing his film screened in that setting», recalls Chiara Nicoletti, one of the executive directors of the festival from 2015 to 2017. «It is unique. Unforgettable. Magical.”

But the 2013 festival was also marked by tragedy. James Gandolfini was supposed to be the guest of honor, but the actor died in Rome on his way to Taormina. “The news of his death arrived at eleven in the evening,” recalls Chiara Nicoletti, one of the organizers of the festival at the time. “We arranged a last minute screening of Romance and cigarettes (John Turturro’s 2005 feature film with Gandolfini). It was terribly tragic. Years later, John Turturro visited the festival and came full circle.”

In 2015, Rocca received some public support, but the festival’s Taormina Arte Committee (the predecessor of the Taormina Arte Foundation), which officially holds the rights to the festival, remained in dire financial straits, with its debt ranging between $3 .3 million and $4.8 million (€3.3 million-€4.4 million). In 2016, when Tiziana Rocca’s contract expired, the Taormina Arte Committee was $5.5 million (€5 million) in the red.

Italian telecoms company Videobank has been tapped to manage the 2017 festival, but Rocca, claiming it was unfairly barred from the tender, has filed legal appeal to block the move. In April 2017, just two months before the festival, an Italian court ruled that neither Videobank nor Rocca could manage Taormina. Plans for a festival bombshell – with Russell Crowe confirmed as chairman of the judging panel and Francis Ford Coppola set to attend to present the 45th anniversary of The Godfather at the Teatro Antico — have been cancelled.

At the last minute, the Taormina Arte Committee organized an impromptu event, which lasted a few days, without competition, without international previews or talents, with a lineup composed only of Sicilian directors.

Everything changes (again)

After the 2017 debacle, Videobank was allowed to manage Taormina, paying the Taormina Arte Foundation $273.00 (€250,000) for the privilege, according to Videobank head Lino Chiechio. But the 2018 festival, under new directors Silvia Bizio and Gianvito Casadonte, was a more pessimistic affair, with a more political background. by Andrzej Jakimowski Once upon a time in November, a Polish social drama, won best film, It will be chaosan HBO documentary about the global refugee crisis, won Best Director for Filippo Piscopo and Lorena Luciano.

For its 65th anniversary, in 2019, the Sicilian festival has rediscovered some of its star mojo: Danny Boyle’s Yesterday premiered at the Theater, as well as that of Sony Spiderman: Far From Home, and the list of VIP attendees included Nicole Kidman, Octavia Spencer and Oliver Stone.

But it wouldn’t last. When COVID hit, Taormina was forced to go mostly digital for the 2020 event and the festival’s financial woes became impossible to ignore. The Taormina Arte Committee is restructured, becoming the Taormina Arte Foundation, with new supporters: outside the Municipality of Messina, within the Municipality of Taormina and the Sicilian Region. Sicily, with a 50% stake in the foundation, had a public debt of $946 million (€866 million).

Thus we arrive at 2023 and “year zero” with Beatrice Venezi and Barrett Wissman. Videobank is out. The Taormina Arte Foundation, today entirely financed with public funds, is fully responsible for it. The stars are back.

Taormina remains one of the most beautiful places in the world. The Ancient Theater has lost none of its charm. But nobody is betting on what the future of this legendary festival will bring.

“I had to give up (on Taormina), I consider it a great loss,” says Videobank boss Chiechio. “Everyone here knows what’s going on at that festival, but nobody intervenes. Taormina is one of the most beautiful festivals in the world, in a crazy location. But it is a cursed land. Sometimes I really believe it. I hope, sooner or later, to see some improvement”.