McCarthy pic nabs Grand Prize at festival

“The Visitor,” Tom McCarthy’s tale of a widower who takes up the cause of an illegal immigrant couple he finds living in his NYC apartment, picked up the Grand Prize at the 34th Deauville Festival of American Film on Sunday night.

Collecting the award, McCarthy struck a political note. “It’s been a very difficult nine years, but I believe tremendously in the power of people and specifically the power of artists to effect change. I think these films signify that we are on our way.”

Many of the 11 competing films touched on social or political themes.

Lance Hammer’s “Ballast” was awarded both the jury prize and the Cartier Revelation prize, which recognizes innovative filmmaking. Pic follows a Mississippi Delta family shattered by suicide and violence.

“It means a lot to me that France recognizes the importance of independent films as well as our studio films in the United States,” said Hammer, who flew in from L.A. for the ceremony. “It’s a dying art right now.”

He also paid tribute to the work of John Cassavetes, whose daughter Zoe led the Cartier jury, and to helmer Charles Burnett, one of the fest’s guests of honor.

The Intl. Critics Jury gave its nod to Damian Harris’ “Gardens of the Night,” the story of a young girl abducted and brought up by pedophiles.

With many festival pics foregrounding social rupture and children in peril, it has not just the weather in Deauville that has sometimes been somber.

Gregory Wilson’s “The Girl Next Door,” about a teenage girl tortured by her aunt, drew hostile audience reaction at an early evening screening. Wilson said afterward he thought the film simply caught people off-guard.

A much warmer response greeted Udayan Prasad’s Louisiana road movie “The Yellow Handkerchief.” Producer Arthur Cohn won rousing applause at the gala screening Thursday after delivering a polemic against violence in Hollywood films.

Following the show, he and topliners William Hurt and Maria Bello received the fest’s only real standing ovation.

Spike Lee got an enthusiastic welcome at the gala evening paying tribute to his career, which included the European preem of WWII actioner “Miracle at St. Anna.” Earlier the helmer visited U.S. war graves in Normandy.

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