Darren Aronofsky drama “The Wrestler,” starring Mickey Rourke as a washed-out pro grappler in comeback mode, pinned down the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion.

“We need to thank Mickey Rourke for opening up his heart and soul for the camera and reminding the world what a great talent he is,” said Aronofsky amid cheers on the Sala Grande stage. A beaming Rourke stood by his side, even though he did not nab the Venice thesping nod.

It was soon clear, however, that Rourke failed to receive the Coppa Volpi due to a technicality. Jury prexy Wim Wenders criticized rules that prevent the Golden Lion winner from also picking up acting prizes –suggesting Rourke should have scooped it.

“Thank you for inviting us to the dance,” said Rourke in a gray suit and a pink polka-dotted tie.

“Darren Aronofsky came here a couple of years ago and fell on his ass,” he said referring to Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” which premiered in Venice in 2006 and subsequently flopped. “I am glad he had the balls to come back.”

Rourke also thanked the jury “for making the right decision.”

As cocky as that may sound, it was a widely shared sentiment among attendees at an edition of the fest that was heavily criticized at first but gained steam in its second half, though it still badly needed the headlock blow delivered by “The Wrestler” on its final day. The prize is likely to bolster Venice’s cachet.

A U.S. distribution deal for “The Wrestler,” which is co-produced by Gaul’s Wild Bunch, is now deemed imminent in Toronto. Andrea Occhipinti, topper of Lucky Red, the pic’s Italo distrib, said he was eyeing a January release date “after the Oscars campaign.”

The Silver Lion for director went to Russia’s Alexei German Jr. for Kazakhstan-set “Paper Soldier,” a deglamorizing depiction of the Soviet Union’s race to put the first man in space during the 1960s.

German Jr. thanked a friend who had “sold his apartment” to finance the sharply shot widescreen drama, which also drew a special cinematography nod for lensers Alisher Khamidhodjaev and Mixim Drozdov.

The special jury prize went to Ethiopian epic “Teza,” a potent tale of dislocation and dictatorship steeped in that country’s recent history, by Washington-based Ethiopian helmer Haile Gerima. Gerima also scooped the screenplay prize.

American actress Jennifer Lawrence took the Marcello Mastroianni award for young performer for her role as a troubled teen contending with a devious mom in Guillermo Arriaga’s multistrand “The Burning Plain.”

“This is my best 18th birthday present ever,” enthused Lawrence at the news conference after profusely thanking her real mother onstage.

The Coppa Volpi for actor went to Italy’s Silvio Orlando for his role as the overprotective father of a criminally insane daughter in Pupi Avati’s “Il papa di Giovanna” (Giovanna’s Father).

“My only explanation for this prize is that Valeria Golino seduced all the other jury members,” Orlando joked.

Gallic thesp Dominique Blanc received the actress prize for her role as a jealous woman in Patrick Mario Bernard and Pierre Trividic’s “L’Autre,” in which she slugs herself in the head with a hammer during a jealous fit.

The Luigi De Laurentiis award for first work went to 59-year-old Italo helmer Gianni Di Gregorio’s bittersweet comedy about aging “Pranzo di Ferragosto” (Mid-August Lunch”). Di Gregorio’s pic, a Lido fave, is produced by helmer Matteo Garrone, whose “Gomorrah” Di Gregorio co-penned. Nod carries a $100,000 check offered by Filmauro, split between the director and the producer.

There were plenty of gripes at this year’s Venice, which was thinner on stars and at first also seemed sparse in its lineup. In the end, though, there were enough rewarding entries to save the day, although several, including Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” left the Lido empty-handed.

Mueller, clearly aware he needs to pacify the international press, which went home with relatively few interviews with the kinds of stars who sell newspapers, has said he has already secured some high-profile U.S. titles for next year.

Looking ahead, Venice organizers have confirmed that the fest’s 66th edition will start Sept. 2, a week later than this year. This date shift is tied to the fact that Venice has always started on a Wednesday, which next year would have meant kicking off Aug. 26, when many Europeans are still in holiday mode.

Venice organizers are confident that the shift will not create more overlap with Toronto than at present. They claim Toronto will change its start date accordingly to Sept. 10, 2009, “as it has done in the past,” said Venice fest director of logistics Luigi Cuciniello.



GOLDEN LION “The Wrestler,” (Darren Aronofsky, US)

SILVER LION “Paper Soldier” (Aleksey German Jr., Russia)

GRAND JURY PRIZE “Teza,” (Haile Gerima, Ethiopia-Germany-France)

ACTOR Silvio Orlando (“Il Papa di Giovanna,” Italy)

ACTRESS Dominique Blanc (“L’Autre,” France)

BEST SCREENPLAY Haile Gerima (“Teza,” Ethiopia-Germany-France)

TECHNICAL CONTRIBUTION (Cinematography) Alisher Khamidhodjev, Maxim Drozdov (“Paper Soldier,” Russia)


SPECIAL LION FOR BODY OF WORK Werner Schroeter (Germany)


LUIGI DE LAURENTIIS LION OF THE FUTURE “Pranzo di Ferragosto,” (Gianni Di Gregorio, Italy)

VENICE HORIZONS “Melancholia” (Lav Diaz, Philippines)

VENICE HORIZONS DOCUMENTARY “Below Sea Level,” (Gianfranco Rosi, Italy)

VENICE HORIZONS SPECIAL MENTION “Un Lac,” (Philippe Grandrieux, France)

VENICE HORIZONS SECOND SPECIAL MENTION “Women,” (Huang Wenhai, China-Switzerland)

INTL. CRITICS’ WEEK AWARD “L’Apprenti,” (Samuel Collardey, France)

Label Europa Cinemas – Venice Days 2008 Prize “Machan,” (Uberto Pasolini, Sri Lanka-Germany-Italy)

FIPRESCI (INTL. CRITICS’ ASSN.) COMPETITION PRIZE “Gabbla” (“Inland”) (Tariq Teguia, Algeria)



Corto Cortissimo Prize “Tierra Y Pan,” (Carlos Armella, Mexico)

Corto Cortissimo Special Mention “The Dinner,” (Karchi Perlmann, Hungary)

UIP Prize for Best European Short “The Altruists,” Koen Dejaegher (Belgium)