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Venice Film Fest Ends Amid Controversy, Media Backlash

Alberto Barbera

Clouded by the media attacks were the presence of a strong lineup, the debut of a new market event and an eclectic group of award winners; see the complete list of this year's honorees here.

ROME -- The world’s oldest film festival ended Saturday amid controversy about how the main awards were decided, followed by vicious attacks in the Italian media about the lack of success from homegrown productions.

Chalk it up to growing pains for a festival that had undergone an ambitious set of changes under newly installed artistic director Alberto Barbera, in his second stint as artistic director after a 10-year hiatus.

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There is little doubt that this year’s edition of the festival will be remembered for the scandals that emerged as it drew to a close. The question is whether Barbera and his team can build on the positive.

The international jury headed by Michael Mann was so enamored with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a fictional story about the formation of a Scientology-like religion, that it intended to give the film three of the festival’s five top awards. Festival rules did not allow that, forcing the jury to pull the main award and hand it instead to Kim Ki-duk’s intense mother-son drama Pieta.

And a day later, the Italian media attacked the festival for turning a blind eye to Italian productions screening on the Lido.

Marco Bellocchio’s competition entry Bella Addormentata (Dormant Beauty), an expertly constructed euthanasia drama, earned much critical praise. But the film left Venice almost empty handed, sparking rage from the 72-year-old director -- honored by Venice with its main career achievement award just last year -- who said he would never again bring a film to the festival.

And two-time Cannes jury prize winner Matteo Garrone called his experience as the only Italian member of the jury “a nightmare,” sparking a personal vow to never serve on another Italian festival jury.

In addition to all that, films from two of the best known directors in the main competition -- both Americans -- were mostly panned by critics: Terrence Malick, in the Venice lineup for the first time ever with his dreamy and confusing To the Wonder, and Brian De Palma, with his first directorial effort in five years, PassionThe Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy called To the Wonder "an impressionistic mish-mash," while Neil Young said Passion was "convoluted" and "disappointingly anemic."

STORY: Venice 2012: Awards Shrouded in Controversy After The Jury Was Prohibited From Giving 'The Master' Top Prize

Lost amid the controversies, however, was an overall strong lineup made up almost exclusievly of world premieres, a more selective program than in past years, films from many figures new to the Lido, and Venice’s first, tentative steps toward creating a full-fledged market event.

While the jury was blocked from presenting it to The Master, the "second choice" label for Golden Lion winner Pieta was an unfair fate for the intense film The Hollywood Reporter critic Deborah Young said was "violent but ultimately moving." The Master’s Anderson was given the Silver Lion for Best Director and co-stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix were given the Coppa Volpi prize for Best Actors -- making it the only film to earn two major prizes.

The Best Actress award went to Hadas Yaron for her work in Israeli production Lemale et Ha’Chalal from Rama BurstheinParadies: Glaube (Paradise: Faith), an exploration into religious faith that sparked protests from catholic groups, directed by Austria's Ulrich Seidl, won the Jury Prize.

Actor Fabrizio Falco, who appeared in both Bellocchio’s Bella Addormentata and E Stat il Figlio (The Son Was Here) from Daniele Cipri, was given the Marcello Mastroianni Award for the best new young actor. Cipri's film also won the award for Best Technical Contribution.

The Best Screenplay award went to Olivier Assayas for Apres Mai (Something in the Air), an early-1970s set story about a group of would-be militants.

The Luigi de Laurentiis award for the Best Debut Film went to Kuf (Mold), from Turkish directorAli Aydun out of the Critic’s Week sidebar, while the top prize from the Horizons sidebar was given to Hong Kong production San Zimei from Wang Bing.

STORY: Marco Bellocchio, Matteo Garrone Swear Off Festivals After Bad Venice Experiences

Overall, attendance was down around 7 percent compared to last year, though with around 20 percent fewer films, the figures could be seen as an increase.

Meanwhile, Barbera declared the festival’s five-day market event “completely satisfying” even before it concluded. Though the festival had not as of Monday released official attendance figures or a list of deals brokered in the confines of the Lido’s Excelsior Hotel, Barbera said there were at least 200 buyers on the Lido who had not come the previous years and that the feedback he received had been positive. His strategy for next year? “The same but bigger,” he said.

Participants in the market said they were satisfied with the first-year event within the 69-year-old Venice festival

“It’s a boutique market that will never be as big or as important as Cannes or Berlin,” said Catherine Mtsitouridze, general director of Russia’s Roskino. “But it doesn’t have to be that in order to be useful. All it will take is one or two big deals to close here and then the Venice Film Market will be on the map.”