'Sacro GRA' Wins Venice Golden Lion

'Sacro GRA'

Director: Gianfranco Rossi
In Competition

Gianfranco Rossi filmed for more than two years in a minivan on Rome’s giant ring road, the Grande Raccordo Anulare.

UPDATED: The film is the first documentary to ever win Venice's top prize and the first Italian winner since 1998.

ROME -- Unheralded Sacro GRA, a documentary about life on the ring road circling Italy's capital and directed by Venice regular Gianfranco Rosi, won the Venice Film Festival's prestigious Golden Lion award Saturday.

The film, which was not considered a front-runner for the festival's main prize, is the first documentary to ever win the Golden Lion and the first Italian film to win it in 15 years.

VENICE FESTIVAL: 42 Movies to Know

Greek director Alexandros Avranas wagiven the Silver Lion for Best Director for his work on Miss Violence, while JiaoYou (Stray Dogs) from former Golden Lion-winner Tsai Ming-liang was given the newly-created jury prize. JiaoYou tells the story about the difficulties of a man and his two children on the edge of society in the Taiwanese capital.

Miss Violence, which recounts a family’s struggles in the wake of their daughter’s suicide, was the only film to win two major prizes. Lead actor Themis Panou, who played the girl’s father, was given the Coppa Volpo for Best Actor. Giving two prizes to the same film required special permission from festival organizers. The issue is a sensitive one in Venice after last year’s festival, when the jury was dramatically barred from giving multiple prizes to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master

Meanwhile, Elena Cotta, who played a stubborn woman in a traffic feud in Via Castellana Bandiera, the silver screen debut for noted dramatist Emma Dante, was given the Best Actress honor.

Judi Dench, who plays a mother in search for the son taken from her 50 years earlier in Stephen Frears’ Philomena, had been the favorite for the acting prize. But, instead, the film was honored with the award for Best Screenplay.

In Saturday’s ceremony, Oscar-winner Bernardo Bertolucci said he was "looking to be surprised" in his role as jury president and that Sacro GRA was "a surprising film."

Sacro GRA was one of two documentaries in the 20-film international competition, along with The Unknown Known, the portrait of former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld directed by Errol Morris. Bertolucci said there was "some discussion" of giving the Best Actor award that ultimately went to Panou to Rumsfeld.

Sacro GRA is just the fourth film -- all documentaries -- the 56-year-old Rosi has made, and three of them premiered on the Lido and took home prizes. In addition to Sacro GRA, Rosi made Below Sea Level, which took home the Horizons section documentary award in 2008; and El Sicario, Room 164, which won the FIPRESCI prize two years later. But this year’s honor is by far the most important he’s received as a filmmaker.

On Saturday, Rosi said he was flabbergasted to have been selected for the 70-year-old festival’s most prestigious award. "I could have never expected to win such an important prize with a documentary," he said.

Previous to Sacro GRA, the last Italian film to win the Venice Golden Lion was Cosi Ridevano (The Way We Laughed), directed by Gianni Amelio in 1998. Amelio was in competition again this year with L'Intrepido, but the film went home empty-handed.

The award ceremony was followed by a screening of Thierry Ragobert’s 3D documentary Amazonia.

Twitter: @EricJLyman