VENICE, Italy — “The Shape of Water,” Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s lavish romantic fantasy about the uncanny attraction between a mute Baltimore cleaner and a mysterious aquatic creature, has taken the Golden Lion for best film in Competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival. The Fox Searchlight release prevailed in a diverse international field of 21 features, winning over a jury headed by American actress Annette Bening.
The world’s oldest film festival has crowned some contentious and controversial winners over the years, but this time, the press and the jury are in agreement: “The Shape of Water” was rapturously acclaimed by critics when it unspooled on the festival’s second day, and has been has been firmly installed as a Golden Lion frontrunner ever since. Reviewing the film for Variety, this writer was among the admirers, declaring it “a ravishing, eccentric auteur’s imagining, spilling artistry, empathy and sensuality from every open pore.”
“I believe in life, I believe in love and I believe in cinema,” declared a visibly moved del Toro as he accepted his award to a thundering standing ovation. He arrives back on the Lido fresh from the film’s equally warmly received premieres in Telluride and Toronto, which further stoked Academy Awards buzz for his singular passion project. Fox Searchlight will open the film Stateside on Dec. 8, in the thick of awards season.
The festival’s second most prestigious honor, the Grand Jury Prize, went to Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz for “Foxtrot” — his first feature since scooping the Golden Lion for 2009’s autobiographical war drama “Lebanon.” This more expansive work, a tripartite reflection on grief and military culture, was praised by Variety critic Jay Weissberg as “award-winning filmmaking on a fearless level.” It is presently one of five films shortlisted to be Israel’s official Academy Awards submission.
Best Director honors went to Frenchman Xavier Legrand for his first feature “Custody,” a tough-minded examination of a couple’s divorce and its effect on their children, as custody negotiations turn acrimonious. An expansion of sorts on his Oscar-nominated 2013 short film “Just Before Losing Everything,” the film made Legrand the night’s one double winner: From a separate jury, he also nabbed the Lion of the Future award for best debut feature across the festival’s multiple sections.
Kamel El Basha, one of the two male co-leads in Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s politically resonant courtroom drama “The Insult,” won Best Actor. British veteran Charlotte Rampling, meanwhile, prevailed in a highly competitive Best Actress field: Seeing off well-received, Oscar-tipped turns by the likes of Frances McDormand and Sally Hawkins, she honored for her delicate, internalized work as a woman coping with her elderly husband’s shocking imprisonment in Italian director Andrea Pallaoro’s oblique character study “Hannah.”
Accepting the award, the actress acknowledged her debt to Italian cinema in particular, paying tribute to the country’s various auteurs with whom she has collaborated over the years, beginning with Gianfranco Mingozzi in 1968: “Italy is my source, absolutely, of inspiration … These are my masters, all of them. If I’m here tonight, it’s because of Italy.”
The award comes a year after Rampling landed her first Oscar nomination for another finely shaded study in late-life disillusionment, Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years.” Haigh’s latest film, “Lean on Pete,” was another prizewinner tonight, taking the Marcello Mastroianni Young Performer Award for its 18-year-old lead Charlie Plummer.
Rounding out the Competition winners, indigenous Australian filmmaker Warwick Thornton took the Special Jury Prize for his racially charged, visually resplendent outback western “Sweet Country,” while British-Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh won Best Screenplay, as widely expected, for the fast verbal fireworks of another Fox Searchlight project, the darkly comic revenge tale “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
While the festival weathered criticism for the dearth of female filmmakers in this year’s competition lineup — with only one distaff-helmed feature in the selection — the jury in the lower-profile Orizzonti (Horizons) section made a tacit stand for gender parity. Their best film prize went to “Nico, 1988,” Italian filmmaker Susanna Nicchiarelli’s biopic of the Velvet Underground icon, while French director Celine Devaux took top short film honors for her “Gros chagrin.”
Finally, in something of a milestone, Venice become the first major film festival to hand out separate awards for virtual reality filmmaking, with John Landis presiding over the inaugural VR jury. Veteran artist-musician-filmmaker Laurie Anderson was among the prizewinners in this section with top honors going to American Eugene Y.K. Chung, whose acceptance speech served as a rallying cry for new cinematic formats. Congratulating Venice on its forward thinking, Chung continued: “This is where film was 100 years ago, and it’s going to be a really exciting journey. I can’t wait to see where it goes.”
WINNERS OF THE 74TH VENICE FILM FESTIVAL OFFICIAL AWARDS
Golden Lion: “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro
Grand Jury Prize: “Foxtrot,” Samuel Maoz
Silver Lion for Best Director: Xavier Legrand, “Custody”
Volpi Cup for Best Actress: Charlotte Rampling, “Hannah”
Volpi Cup for Best Actor: Kamel El Basha, “The Insult”
Best Screenplay: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Martin McDonagh
Special Jury Prize: “Sweet Country,” Warwick Thornton
Marcello Mastroianni Award for Young Performer: Charlie Plummer, “Lean on Pete”
Best Film: “Nico, 1988,” Susanna Nicchiarelli
Best Director: Vahid Jalilvand, “No Date, No Signature”
Special Jury Prize: “Caniba,” Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Best Actress: Lyna Khoudri, “Les bienheureux”
Best Actor: Navid Mohammadzadeh, “No Date, No Signature”
Best Screenplay: “Oblivion Verses,” Alireza Khatami, Dominique Wellinski and Rene Ballesteros
Best Short Film: “Gros chagrin,” Céline Devaux
LION OF THE FUTURE
Luigi De Laurentiis Award for Best Debut Film: “Custody,” Xavier Legrand
Best Documentary on Cinema: “The Prince and the Dybbuk,” Elvira Niewiera and Piotr Rosolowski
Best Restored Film: “Come and See”
VIRTUAL REALITY COMPETITION
Best Virtual Reality: “Arden’s Wake (Expanded),” Eugene Y.K. Chung
Best Virtual Reality Experience: “La Camera Isabbiata,” Laurie Anderson and Hsin-chien Huang
Best Virtual Reality Story: “Bloodless,” Gina Kim