Todd Phillips’ dark supervillain origin story “Joker” has come up trumps at the Venice Film Festival, taking the Golden Lion from a jury headed by Argentine auteur Lucrecia Martel. Controversial veteran Roman Polanski, meanwhile, took the runner-up Grand Jury Prize for his film “An Officer and a Spy,” capping a festival marked by debate over gender representation and the impact of #MeToo in the industry.
It’s a rarity for a major Hollywood studio production to take the top prize at Venice, and unprecedented for a superhero-adjacent property to take any such honor, but the Warner Bros. title established itself early on as the festival’s lightning rod: a film that sparked headlines and critical discussion to the very end of the festival, as many other competing titles came and went without a ripple.
Variety chief critic Owen Gleiberman was among its many champions, acclaiming it as “a neo-‘Taxi Driver’ knockout: the rare comic-book movie that expresses what’s happening in the real world.” Other critics voiced reservations about the extremity of the film’s onscreen violence, and what they perceived as sympathetic centralization of a toxic male protagonist; we can expect the back-and-forth to continue when the film goes into general release on Oct. 4.
Whether the film achieves critical consensus or not, the top prize in Venice validates the artistic legitimacy of an unusual commercial-prestige crossover item, and will significantly bolster “Joker’s” awards-season strategy. Phillips’ film, with its dynamic star turn by Joaquin Phoenix, will be looking to emulate the last two Golden Lion winners — Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” — which were both nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, with the former winning and the latter widely perceived as a close runner-up.
The award for Polanski, meanwhile, will spark fury in many quarters, as the inclusion of the French-Polish auteur — still a fugitive from the U.S. justice system after pleading guilty to the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1978 — in the festival lineup prompted widespread protest. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many industry bodies have reconsidered their relationship to Polanski, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expelling him from its ranks last year, 15 years after handing him an Oscar for “The Pianist.”
Martel made her own compromised stand against Polanski, refusing to attend the red carpet premiere of “An Officer and a Spy,” though she later clarified that she would view the film with an open mind. The outcome speaks for itself: A dramatization of the Dreyfus affair, Polanski’s film was among the festival’s best-received films, topping multiple critics’ polls and taking yesterday’s best-in-show award from FIPRESCI. Gleiberman, however, was among the dissenters, declaring it “a film that tells you things more than it gets you to feel them.”
Polanski was not present to receive the award, which was accepted on his behalf by his wife Emmanuelle Seigner, though his absence will hardly cool the ire of protesters viewing his inclusion and celebration in Venice as a tacit acceptance of his crimes.
Rubbing salt in the wound this year was the festival Competition’s scant selection of female directors: Only two, Saudi Arabia’s Haifaa al-Mansour and Australian neophyte Shannon Murphy, made the cut, and neither was awarded by the jury. (Murphy’s heartfelt family drama “Babyteeth” didn’t leave empty-handed, however, taking the Marcello Mastroianni Young Actor prize for 22-year-old co-lead Toby Wallace.)
The jury’s other choices were less contentious. Swedish veteran Roy Andersson, a Golden Lion winner in 2014 for “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” took the Best Director prize for “About Endlessness,” another artfully composed collection of existential sketches in his signature deadpan style. An ebullient Yonfan, the crown prince of Chinese-language queer cinema, received the Best Screenplay award for his first animated film, “No. 7 Cherry Lane” — a surreal, nostalgic valentine to mid-century Hong Kong that marked his first feature in a decade.
Veteran French character actress Ariane Ascaride took Best Actress honors for Robert Guediguian’s bittersweet ensemble piece “Gloria Mundi,” while the Italian home crowd was satisfied with two significant wins. Luca Marinelli was a popular Best Actor winner for his performance in the title of role of Pietro Marcello’s lavish Jack London adaptation “Martin Eden,” while filmmaker Franco Maresco took the Special Jury Prize for his mob mockumentary “The Mafia Is No Longer What It Used to Be.”
In the festival’s secondary Horizons competition, Ukrainian filmmaker Valentyn Vasyanovych took top honors for his dystopian drama “Atlantis,” while Sudanese newcomer Amjad Abu Alala landed the Luigi de Laurentiis Award for Best Debut Feature for his village-set fable “You Will Die at Twenty.”
Full list of winners below.
Golden Lion: “Joker,” Todd Phillips
Grand Jury Prize: “An Officer and a Spy,” Roman Polanski
Silver Lion for Best Director: Roy Andersson, “About Endlessness”
Volpi Cup for Best Actress: Ariane Ascaride, “Gloria Mundi”
Volpi Cup for Best Actor: Luca Marinelli, “Martin Eden”
Best Screenplay: “No. 7 Cherry Lane,” Yonfan
Special Jury Prize: “The Mafia Is No Longer What It Used to Be,” Franco Maresco
Marcello Mastroianni Award for Young Actor: Toby Wallace, “Babyteeth”
HORIZONS COMPETITION (ORIZZONTI)
Best Film: “Atlantis,” Valentyn Vasyanovych
Best Director: Théo Court, “White on White”
Special Jury Prize: “Verdict,” Raymund Ribas Gutierrez
Best Actress: Marta Nieto, “Madre”
Best Actor: Sami Bouajila, “A Son”
Best Screenplay: “Back Home,” Jessica Palud, Philippe Lioret and Diastème
Best Short Film: “Darling,” Saim Sadiq
LION OF THE FUTURE
Luigi de Laurentiis Award for Best Debut Feature: “You Will Die at Twenty,” Amjad Abu Alala
Best Restored Film: “Ecstasy,” Gustav Machatý
Best Documentary on Cinema: “Babenco – Alguém Tem Que Ouvir O Coração E Dizer: Parou,” Bárbara Paz
VIRTUAL REALITY COMPETITION
Best Virtual Reality: Céline Tricart, “The Key”
Best Virtual Reality Experience: “A Linha,” Ricardo Laganaro
Best Virtual Reality Story: “Daughters of Chibok,” Joel Kachi Benson