One of my favourite scenes from the classic Italian film, Cinema Paradiso is when the projectionist, Alfredo deflects the light beam from his machine out of his window. The projected film settles on a wall and the overspill crowd delight in an unscheduled, open-air screening in their starlit piazza. Collective joy ensues.
In Britain we have tried to match this outdoor magic with rooftop cinemas, movies in parks and even poolside screenings. It can work but it's an uphill struggle against the erratic weather, unraked seating and chilly bottoms shuffling on picnic blankets. More of a novelty outing rather than a pleasure pursuit.
To ensure you enjoy the full delights of outdoor cinema you need to head to southern Europe, preferably to the home of Cinema Paradiso itself, Italy. And to be doubly sure you are basking in the warmth of a balmy evening go deep south, beyond the toe of mainland Italy to the island of Sicily.
The good news for alfresco fans is that the handsome town of Taormina on the eastern coast of Sicily shows feature films in its 2000 year old Greco-Roman amphitheatre. This magnificent stone theatre, the second largest in Sicily, was perfectly placed by the ancient Greeks to take in views of the Ionian coastline while providing an elevated vista of mighty Mount Etna. Later the Romans appropriated the spot and increased the seating while enlarging the stage for gladiatorial fights and animal spectaculars. All very dramatic but the actors, the tigers and the trident-wielding fighters alike would still struggle to compete with the star of the show, the stunning location.
Nowadays the amphitheatre is a national monument open for tourists in the day and used for concerts and occasional operas in the summer evenings. BUT, FILM FANS TAKE NOTE, there is only one week a year to catch screenings at the Teatro Antico, at the end of June during the heady days of the Taormina film festival. Luckily it is a great time to visit as the weather is usually sunny but not sultry, there are a few A-list film stars in town and less cruise ship visitors. Best of all, the red carpet laid out in the main IX Aprile Piazza brings a touch of glamour and residents parading along the main pedestrianised street of Corso Umberto are even more fashionably dressed than usual.
As I approached the amphitheatre for my first outdoor screening in Taormina I was half expecting a Cinema Paradiso moment, a low-tech but charming experience complete with flickering projector and bedsheet style screen. How quaint. How wrong! Entering the stadium through the gladiatorial stone archway I was surprised to find a humungous screen, a sophisticated lighting rig and one of the best sound systems I’ve ever experienced. More delights followed as a very glamorous Nicole Kidman stepped onto the stage to accept a festival award. Dazzling in her white designer evening dress she gave a short speech and praised Taormina for staging “magical moments under the stars.”
And she was so right. As the titles of Danny Boyle’s fresh film , Yesterday hit the huge screen I felt a tingle of wonderment shoot up my spine. It was 360 degree starlit entertainment. As well as watching the perfectly presented film I could check out the glowing beam from the hi-tech projector and enjoy the smiling faces of the audience in the surrounding dusk.
Under the ink blue sky the film seemed more intense, the blacks blacker and the colours richer. The temperature was a comfortable 28˚centigrade with just a hint of a breeze wafting up from the Ionian sea. To the left there was a glorious view of the sodium lights reflected in the Bay of Naxos and above the proscenium arch the smouldering silhouette of Etna. The volcano was quiet but it did remind me that in 2001 during a screening of Apocalypse Now it had erupted right on cue during the battle scenes. Magical indeed.
Established in 1955 the festival has gone through a whole range of flavours and fashions. There was golden age during the late 60’s when the David di Donatello award, the Italian equivalent of an Oscar, was still presented in Taormina (now returned to Rome) Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would jet in to collect their awards at the Teatro Antico and then head off for a night at the famous La Giara nightclub to dance and drink with film producers, playwrights and other professional bohemians.
In the latter part of the 20th century the festival evolved to a more serious affair with heavyweight academics and intellectual films setting the tone. Nowadays there is more of a range on offer with cutting edge releases shown at the Palazzo dei Congress in the daytime while mainstream big hitters are screened at the amphitheatre in the evening. For example this year the open-air offerings ranged from an Apple funded wildlife documentary, to a home grown drama about hardship in a Calabrian village, through to Danny Boyle’s Beatles homage and onto a well attended Spiderman premiere.
As well as being a magical place to watch films, Taormina has also provided the backdrop for many cult films. The striking shoreline and the town itself feature heavily in Luc Bresson’s The Big Blue. Many of the Sicilian sections of the The Godfather were filmed in and around the town and Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite used the amphitheatre itself to stage his Greek chorus. This year the first ever feature film shot one hundred years ago in Taormina was shown at the festival. L’Appel du Sang directed by Louis Mercanton is a silent drama based upon the lure of a Sicilian siren. The screening was packed with local residents enjoying a glimpse of the town’s past. Surprisingly the scenes were reassuringly familiar. A little more basic and wilder around the edges with no Nicole Kidman or red carpets but plenty of the same dramatic coastline, volcanic scenery and just a few donkeys along the car-free Corso Umberto. Long may the Sicilian lure continue.
1. At the amphitheatre screenings the well dressed audience in the first few rows move out en masse after the presentation of the awards. They are off to dinner and naturally the press and paparazzi follow them. All rather disconcerting as the film is about to to start, but if you want to get closer to the screen and a more comfy seat this is the time to move down.
2. The Grand Hotel Timeo, currently the best upmarket hotel open in Taormina is right opposite the exit of the amphitheatre. You can either get yourself in the mood before the film with an apertivo on the hotel’s fabulous terrace, or head there for a post film discussion over a grappa. belmond.com/hotels
3. The film festival in Taormina comes a few days after the highly regarded ‘Taobuk’ literary festival of Taormina. With International authors of the calibre of Ian McEwan and Isabel Allende in attendance it is possible to go straight from book stars to film stars. taobuk.it/
Tickets cost 20 euros for a day ticket to the festival and 10 euros for the upper seats at an evening performance ( upper seats offer the best combined views of the screen and the volcano) Tickets for the whole week of the festival featuring 78 films cost 58 euros.
Planning ahead, the 2020 festival runs from 28th June to 4th July and in 2021 June 27th to 3rd July taorminafilmfest.it/
You can find other Italian open air cinemas experiences featured in The Local.it