“Faust” by the Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov was the surprise winner of the top Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival last night.
Directors Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg and George Clooney won nothing.
China’s Shangjun Cai took the best-director trophy for a last-minute entry, “Ren Shan Ren Hai,” the story of a man who returns to his mountain village to avenge his younger brother’s killing. Another Chinese movie, “A Simple Life” by Ann Hui -- about a housekeeper who retires to an old people’s home after decades serving one family -- was rewarded with the best-actress award going to Deannie Yip.
“Shame,” artist Steve McQueen’s explicit movie about a solitary sex addict on the rampage in New York, saw actor Michael Fassbender collect the best-actor trophy.
The winning movie, “Faust,” is a loose adaptation of the Goethe tragedy. It’s the fourth in a series of movies on the theme of political power that earlier portrayed Hitler, Lenin, and Japan’s late Emperor Hirohito.
Choosing the winners were jury head Darren Aronofsky, whose “Black Swan” had opened last year’s festival, and six other judges that included musician David Byrne.
Italy came away with a special jury prize for “Terraferma” by Emanuele Crialese, the story of a Sicilian fishing village coping with an influx of African migrants.
Polanski was the biggest surprise loser. The Polish-born director had impressed the critics with “Carnage,” adapted from a play by Yasmina Reza, that showed two sets of parents meeting after their respective sons’ involvement in a nasty fist fight. The movie was filmed entirely in an apartment interior, and featured standout performances from Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Kate Winslet.
Clooney was competing with “The Ides of March,” a pitiless portrayal of U.S. politics, with himself in the role of a smooth senator.
Cronenberg’s entry, “A Dangerous Method,” also stars Fassbender as well as Keira Knightley, and focuses on psychiatrist Carl Jung’s entanglement with a young Russian patient.
Much as the closing-night ceremony was short on big-name stars, the festival this year started out with plenty of them. Madonna sparked a frenzy on Lido island (where the festival takes place), presenting her movie “W.E.” -- about an abused Manhattan wife who becomes obsessed with the story of Edward VIII’s abdication and marriage to the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Al Pacino showed off his mastery of “double-talk” Italian -- the only kind he speaks -- as he presented his documentary-like homage to Oscar Wilde, featuring Jessica Chastain: “Wilde Salome.”
Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon stopped by to promote “Contagion,” the story of a fearsome global pandemic, directed by Steven Soderbergh. Paltrow made headlines around the world when she was asked whether the deadly virus could be viewed as punishment for her character’s adultery in the film.
“If death by virus was the punishment for extramarital affairs, there would be about three dudes left in this room right now,” said the actress -- wife of rock band Coldplay’s Chris Martin -- to much laughter. “Maybe less because we’re in Italy.”
Also roaming the festival’s elegant venues were designer Valentino, in a leathery tan and blue suede shoes that matched his shirt. Hovering nearby in the hope of attracting press attention was a Luciano Pavarotti lookalike.
Festival-goers on Venice’s Lido island this year found construction work stalled on the new convention building. Digging led to the discovery of toxic asbestos, and existing plans had to be ripped up, paving the way for a new and less ambitious project that will complement the existing building, built by dictator Benito Mussolini.