After a week of outstanding new films, gracious appearances by world-class stars, and the cruel booing of Emma Thompson, The Return, an intense Russian drama about a father and his two sons by debutant director Andrey Zvyagintsev, came from nowhere to win the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion for best film last night.
Festival-goers were groping for superlatives after a feast of film that included a samurai blood-fest by the cult Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, a dazzling new comedy by the Coen brothers, a return to erotic form by Bernardo Bertolucci and the winning impersonation of a loose-cannon CIA agent adrift in Mexico by Johnny Depp. After this festival, Venice's claim to be on a par with Cannes, or rather better, has never looked stronger.
Kitano's Zatoichi won him best director award, while Sean Penn took best actor for his role in 21 Grams, by the acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. One of the most popular films of the week, Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, about an American movie star (played by Bill Murray) dealing with culture shock in a Tokyo hotel, gained Scarlett Johansson, Murray's co-star, the prize for best actress in the Upstream competition for less commercial films.
Not everyone had a wonderful week. British director Christopher Hampton's Imaging Argentina, about a journalist raped and tortured after she tries to find the truth about Argentina's 30,000 "disappeared ones", was trashed by the critics and booed and jeered while it was being shown. The press conference afterwards was halted when the questions turned nasty.
Acclaim for the Coen brothers comedy Intolerable Cruelty was mixed with charges that the masters of American whimsy had finally sold out - a charge that infuriated George Clooney, who starred in the film alongside Catherine Zeta Jones. "Is that a question or an insult?" he snapped when the "sell-out" issue was raised.
Italian film-maker Marco Bellochio, widely tipped to win best film by the Italian media, took the Outstanding Individual Contribution award instead for his film Good Morning, Night about the abduction and murder of Aldo Moro. And Woody Allen, who has visited Venice numerous times but never the festival, took a lifetime achievement award, but declined to stick around to see his new film, Anything Else.