'Monsoon' showered with Golden Lion

VENICE — Director Mira Nair’s comedy-romance about the chaotic preparations for a Punjabi family marriage ceremony, “Monsoon Wedding,” took top honors Saturday at the 58th Venice Intl. Film Festival, marking the first Golden Lion awarded to an Indian feature since Satyajit Ray’s “Aparajito” in 1957.

“This one is for India, my beloved India and my continuing inspiration, and for the extraordinary ensemble of actors in my movie who possessed their roles so completely,” said Nair. “I’m so grateful to the people of Italy and to Venice in particular for always embracing my work.”

Nair is only the third woman director to win Venice’s top award, following Margarethe von Trotta for “The German Sisters” in 1981 and Agnes Varda for “Vagabonde” in 1985. Segueing directly from its world premiere in Venice to a gala screening at the Toronto fest, “Monsoon” will be released Stateside by USA Films.

‘Dog’ has its day

Venice’s grand jury prize went to “Dog Days,” the first dramatic feature from iconoclastic Austrian documaker Ulrich Seidl, which explores the ugly underbelly of Viennese suburbia. Seidl’s work is currently the subject of a director’s spotlight in Toronto.

In Venice producer Philippe Bober closed acquisition deals for “Dog Days” for Canada, Russia, Austria and the Netherlands, with sales reportedly pending in five more key territories and significant interest in the U.S.

The special jury prize for direction went to Babak Payami’s comedy of the absurd about the socio-political realities of contemporary Iran, “Secret Ballot.” This reps the second consecutive year that a major Venice award has gone to an Iranian-Italian co-production, following last year’s Golden Lion winner, “The Circle.”

Rising Italian stars Luigi Lo Cascio and Sandra Ceccarelli landed best actor and actress nods for their roles as emotional castaways in Giuseppe Piccioni’s melancholy drama “Light of My Eyes,” one of several competition entries that sharply divided critics.

‘Mama’ remembered

One of the more popular entries, Alfonso Cuaron’s poignant comedy “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (And Your Mother Too), earned the screenplay prize for the director and his co-scripter brother Carlos Cuaron.

The Marcello Mastroianni Award for best newcomer was shared by the pic’s young leads Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, who play horny adolescents on the road with a sexy older Spanish woman in the hit Mexican feature. IFC will release “Mama” in the U.S. in March.

Standout of the newly competitive Cinema of the Present section and widely predicted winner was Gallic director Laurent Cantet’s somber drama of an unemployed man’s elaborate deception of his family and friends, “Time Out,” which scored the Lion of the Year plus $100 cash.

Special jury prizes in the section went to two feature bows: Chinese screenwriter-turned-director Zhu Wen’s story of the complex relationship between a prostitute and a policeman, “Seafood”; and French newcomer Damien Odoul’s drama of youth alienation and violence, “Deep Breath.”

‘Bread’ toasted

The Lion of the Future in the Opera Prima competition for best debut feature went to Slovenian director Jan Cvitkovic’s “Bread and Milk,” about a family united by deep bonds but unable to express their love. The prize includes $100 cash and 65,600 feet of film stock. German Jan Kruger’s “Whiz Kids” won the Corto-Cortissimo short film competition.

While passed over by the main competition jury, “Behind the Sun,” Walter Salles’ drama of feuding families in the Brazilian badlands, was the unanimous winner of the fest’s youth jury prize.

Producer Arthur Cohn reports keen acquisition interest from a number of U.S. companies. But Miramax is known to have the edge in a deal expected to be finalized in the coming week for rights in most of the world, with distribution in several major territories via Buena Vista.

The Fipresci international critics prize in the main competition was awarded to French maverick Philippe Garrel’s drug drama “Wild Innocence” and in Cinema of the Present to “Deep Breath.” Top honors in the Intl. Critics Week went to Italian Vincenzo Marra’s neo-realist fisherman tale “Sailing Home.”

While pundits found few if any outright masterpieces in Venice, this year’s lineup was generally considered far more consistent and stimulating than in recent years, with ticket sales boosted accordingly.

Single admissions showed a 57% increase, while 10-day passes were up 58.5%. Figures demonstrate that a recent push to attract younger audiences to the venerable event has paid off, with over 61% of this year’s festgoers under 30.

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