Diamonds in the rough at Venice

Despite lackluster lineup, some films shined

Complete Venice coverage

VENICE -- Venice wasn't the only film festival to have trouble scrounging up a competition-worthy lineup this year -- it was just the most prominent. And in the festival world, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

The journalists, sales agents and general public who empty their piggy banks to spend time on the terrifyingly overpriced Lido come here expecting to be enthralled by a "showcase of cinematic art" -- the festival's real title, and its mission. So when an off-year rolls around and quality turns scarce, there is mucho discontent.

Despite a few great titles, like Miyazaki's magical work of animation "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea," there was an overall feeling of confusion in the competition, as quiet arty films and experimental work more suitable to festivals like Rotterdam unspooled beside the noisy Americans, and half the better films inexplicably popped up in Horizons and out of comp. A more coherent approach will be needed if fest director Marco Mueller hopes to win back the hearts of his fans next year.

The festival only sprang to life at the end, when Mueller brought out his big guns from the U.S. All three films had vociferous supporters and detractors among the critics, creating a little excitement. But by then many had already given up hope and left for Toronto and other destinations.

Jonathan Demme arrived on the Lido with a much-admired piece of Americana, "Rachel Getting Married," hot-wired by Anne Hathaway's award-worthy performance. "The Hurt Locker," Kathryn Bigelow's hard-hitting chronicle of three U.S. soldiers who disarm bombs in Iraq, received no prizes despite ending up at the top of Italian critics' polls.

The Golden Lion ultimately went to another high adrenaline entry, Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," featuring an electrifying comeback for actor Mickey Rourke.

Another American-based director who appeared late in the festival and got many people's vote was Haile Gerima for his well-liked hymn to his native Ethiopia, "Teza."