Celebrating 70 Years of the Taormina Film Festival

Words by Belmond Editors

The 4,500-seat Ancient Theatre – once a stage for the works of Aeschylus and Aristophanes – is now the storied setting for the Taormina Film Festival. As the festival celebrates a new milestone, we look back at seven decades of cinematic history.

Cannes has its famed red steps. Venice is lapped by the Lido shoreline. But only the Taormina Film Festival can say that it hosts its premieres in a venue where the art of acting has been celebrated since the third century BC: the Teatro Antico.

With its tumble of honey-hued bricks, preserved cavea seating and easy ability to awe any visitor, this ancient Greek theatre has beguiled visitors as the jewel in Taormina’s crown for over five thousand years – “never has the audience of a theatre seen a similar spectacle,” enthused Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his Italian Journey (1816). The city’s shine shows no signs of dulling: recently the backdrop for HBO’s The White Lotus, well-heeled travellers have never been keener to don a pair of cat-eye sunglasses and ride a vespa along its sunbaked streets (perhaps draped in a flowing pink scarf).

Launching in 1955, the festival originally alternated between Taormina and Messina before laying down permanent roots from 1971 onwards, benefitting from Taormina’s cerulean Ionian Sea, the smoking Mount Etna skyline and, of course, the Teatro Antico. It’s where the festival’s evening premieres take place today, the open sky as starry as the guests in attendance.

Since its inception, cinematic icons have flocked to the city to enjoy the festival’s open-air charms, with Sicilian dolce vita by day and glittering premieres by night. From debonair silver screen icons such as Cary Grant through to Italian sirens such as Monica Vitti, Taormina Film Festival quickly cultivated a sophisticated reputation for attracting the best and brightest in the business.

Back in Hollywood’s golden age, glamourous guests including Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale and Ingrid Bergman would flash smiles on hotel balconies and shed tears during premiere standing ovations. Meanwhile, the beaches of Taormina’s Mazzarò Bay bustled with beauties and the Piazza IX Aprile saw crowds jostling in excitement for the evening premieres. It was a time of excess; perhaps there is no better example of this than when, in 1963, turbulent it-couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton arrived carrying 156 pieces of luggage between them.

Like nearby Mount Etna, the festival is in a constant state of evolution and explosion – changing locations, names and leadership over the years. But one element has remained the same: the calibre of the programming. Taormina always has its finger on the pulse; in the 1970s New Hollywood icons like Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson graced the festival, and in the 1980s and 1990s the festival had a reputation as a cinephile’s haven with a focus on talks, book launches, arthouse fare and retrospectives, as well as elevating the work of nascent filmmakers like Peter Weir and Giuseppe Tornatore before they hit the big time.

Moments of magic have a way of marking the Taormina Film Festival. There was the time in 2000 where the amphitheatre sang Happy Birthday to Tom Cruise (after he had arrived by helicopter, naturally, for the premiere of Mission: Impossible 2); when two pioneering directors of queer cinema, Pedro Almodóvar and John Waters, caused a stir with a kiss in 1994; or even when, during a 2001 screening of a new cut of Apocalypse Now, the screen showed Vietnam War explosions while Mount Etna began to rumble and erupt in unison

In more recent times, the festival has hosted several Italian premieres for box office blockbusters, from Toy Story 3 to Spider-Man: Far from Home. Francis Ford Coppola was the guest of honour in 2022, presenting a screening of The Godfather fifty years after he had filmed scenes for the film in nearby Savoca. Fittingly, considering the screening location in the Greek Theatre, the 2023 edition of the festival saw the Italian premiere of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny – in which Harrison Ford travels back in time with the help of an Ancient Greek artefact created by the Sicily-born Archimedes.

In the 70th edition, taking place 13 to 19 July 2024, Oscar-nominated director Lee Isaac Chung will bring his newest film Twisters, starring Glen Powell and Daisy Edgar-Jones, to the Taormina stage. Stay tuned to see the full programme for this year's anniversary celebration on the festival website.

Image credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

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