Iran, U.S. pix top Venice fest

Critical consensus match jury's verdict

VENICE — East and West shared top honors as the 57th Venice Intl. Film Festival wrapped Saturday, with the Golden Lion going to Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s “The Circle” and American artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel taking the Grand Jury Prize for “Before Night Falls.”

The critical consensus in Venice, for once, matched the jury’s verdict. Even before awards were announced, most pundits on the Lido had already proclaimed Panahi’s film as the most prizeworthy title in competition. Trenchant drama depicts the strength and spirit of women in contemporary Iran in the face of relentless oppression.

“I come from Iran, an ancient country and a country full of culture and of people who love life and who are the inspiration for my film,” said Panahi. “In two days, filmmakers in my country will celebrate the centenary of Iranian cinema. And so, I dedicate this prize to all the good people of my country and all those who have contributed to the history of Iranian cinema.”

Cannes rejects score

With the Iranian victory, it’s the second consecutive year in which a film refused for competition at Cannes has walked off with unanimous critical acclaim and the top prize in Venice. Zhang Yimou took the 1999 Golden Lion for “Not One Less.”

Cannes director Gilles Jacob reportedly passed over “The Circle” in favor of another Iranian title, “Blackboards,” by Samira Makhmalbaf, a member of the Venice jury that chose to honor Panahi’s film. An Iranian-Italian co-production, “The Circle” also took the Fipresci international critics prize.

Scoring two important awards in a lineup in which U.S. productions were thinly represented, Schnabel’s film landed the grand jury prize and the best actor nod for Spanish thesp Javier Bardem.

‘Night’ finds honor

A moving chronicle of the life and death of persecuted gay Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas, “Before Night Falls” was picked up for North American release on the eve of its Venice bow by Fine Line, which will begin platforming the drama in December.

“This is unbelievable,” said Schnabel, accepting the award from veteran French director Claude Chabrol. “I’m speechless, and that’s something rare for me because I talk all the time. This is a dream for me. Thanks to everyone and thank you, Reinaldo.”

Best actress kudos went to Rose Byrne as a young blind woman struggling to make peace with her past in Clara Law’s Australian road movie “The Goddess of 1967.” The Marcello Mastroianni award for an outstanding young actor or actress went to 14-year-old Brit Megan Burns for “Liam,” Stephen Frears’ drama about an Irish Catholic family in 1930s Liverpool.

Tunis first film

A separate jury headed by Canadian director Atom Egoyan awarded the Luigi De Laurentiis prize for best first film to Tunisian Abdel Kechiche’s examination of the life of an illegal immigrant in Paris, “La faute a Voltaire.” Backed by Italian distrib Filmauro, the award consists of $100,000 cash to be split between the director and producer and 20,000 meters (about 66,000 feet) of film provided by Kodak.

In the main jury’s most surprising selection, the special prize for best director went to Indian helmer Buddhadeb Dasgupta, for his story of intolerance and the disintegration of harmony, “The Wrestlers,” which was widely dismissed by critics as one of the lesser entries in the competition.

Civilized ‘fistfights’

Indicating that most of the prizes were not the result of unanimous votes, jury president Milos Forman said: “There were fistfights, but very civilized fistfights. We saw such a variety of films, such a diversity of styles, genres and visions that practically all the awards were decided by a very narrow majority.”

The most surprising honors list omission was “Platform,” Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s reflection on a group of friends from a provincial village amid the pop-cultural revolution of the 1980s. Drama was among the most acclaimed titles of the competition.

Two other critical favorites received minor awards. Barbet Schroeder’s “Our Lady of the Assassins,” about a middle-aged writer’s search for love among the adolescent killers of Medellin, Colombia, won the Gold Medal of the Italian Senate; Marco Tullio Giordana’s retelling of a notorious Mob killing, “The Hundred Steps,” earned the best screenplay nod for Claudio Fava, Monica Zapelli and Giordana.

Local films up

Complaints were voiced by the national contingent at the fest that Italian entries had failed to land a major prize. Homegrown pics have taken a critical hammering at Venice in recent years, but this year’s crop represented a marked improvement and a sign of new vitality in the beleaguered local film sector.

“One of the things I’m most satisfied about is the performance of the Italian movies here,” said fest director Alberto Barbera. “This was our biggest gamble. It was feared that by selecting four Italian titles for competition we were creating too high expectations. But the response to Italian films both in and out of competition has been generally positive, so we are proud of these choices and hope that audiences will respond the same way when they open in theaters.”

In addition to Giordana’s film, Gabriele Salvatore’s “Teeth,” a technically accomplished odyssey of love and pain; Guido Chiesa’s WWII Resistance tale “Johnny the Partisan”; and, in particular, Carlo Mazzacurati’s bittersweet comedy “Holy Tongue,” all found admirers, as did Pasquale Scimeca’s stylized Mafia drama “Placido Rizzotto,” which screened out of competition.

Winner of the Corto-Cortissimo competition for best short film was Australian Peter Long’s “A Telephone Call for Genevieve Snow.”

Among unofficial prizes, the Cult Network Italia award of $10,000 for best film of the Intl. Critics Week went to debuting Portuguese director Claudia Tomaz’s “Noites”; “Liam” took the ecumenical award; and the Fipresci prize for best out-of-competition title went to Belgian newcomer Pierre-Paul Renders’ “Thomas in Love.”

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