Venice: What will win the big awards… and what should

VENICE — It’s the final day of the Venice Film Festival, and everything has wound down to a suitably Italian pace. The journalists have largely headed home or on to Toronto — including my flatmates, leaving me rattling around a three-bedroom apartment, idly contemplating potential house-party guests.

The jury’s deliberations have been done. The closing film (the Depardieu-starring Victor Hugo adaptation “The Man Who Laughed”) has been screened, and is reported to be, as is the usual wont of festival closers, rather dreadful. Warned off by colleagues at dinner last night, I opted for a lie-in this morning instead. As such, my festival viewing is complete, but my reviewing isn’t: look out for a couple more short-form review pieces in the next few days. 

In other words, it’s a low-key end to a festival that has been decidedly low-key from the start. That’s not to say it’s been a bad one: there’s much to admire in this year’s slimmed-down programme, particularly outside of a Competition lineup that most agree has been a shade less inspired than those of the last two years. Still, the Competition is where everyone’s eyes ultimately land, as the inevitable question arose at the dinner table last night: “What’s looking good for the Golden Lion?”

(Actually, the question arose three times, as happy social circumstances forced me to attend three separate dinners. The things I do for this job.)  

So, what is looking good for the Lion, and the other jury awards? This year feels harder to call than most — and most years are pretty hard, with recent Venice juries having flummoxed pundits with such unexpected winners as “Somewhere,” “Lebanon” and “Lust, Caution.” (The latter may not seem a surprising pick now, but after its rough initial reception on the Lido, hardly anyone imagined Ang Lee winning his second Lion in three years.)

Few films in Competition this year have crashed and burned — though it’s fair to assume Brian De Palma’s silly “Passion” won’t be taking any prizes tonight — but few have been overwhelming critical successes, either. Most titles have an admiring fanbase, surrounded by pockets of skepticism or simple indifference. Many were moved by Rama Burshtein’s arranged-marriage drama “Fill the Void,” others were offended by its perceived conservatism. The poetry of Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” drew the requisite gasps of admiration (mine included), but fewer than usual: even some of his acolytes thought it felt minor by his standards.

The one film rising above this polite exchange of critical nods and shrugs is Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” It has, of course, been widely adored by critics here, but even certain detractors are willing to acknowledge that its feels the most substantial film on the Lido this year, the only one we’re all likely to be talking about next month, next year and beyond. (It’s also, in case you hadn’t already worked this out, the only Venice film likely to figure into this upcoming Oscar race.) For my part, as much as I’d like to single out some unheralded gem in need of a boost, “The Master” remains the best thing I’ve seen at Venice this year by a country mile, growing only richer and more teasing in the rear-view mirror — I’m positively itching to see it again.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the bookies’ favorite to take the gold tonight, but I wonder. Venice juries are often willing to reward the most robust critical hit in the lineup, and reward English-language films with relatively frequency — in recent years, “Vera Drake,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Wrestler” all seemed like no-brainers. With Michael Mann, himself a swaggering US auteur, at the head of the jury, I question whether he’ll be overly eager to hand the prize to a compatriot and relative contemporary — he may be wowed, but he may also prefer to steer the jury toward a more exotic title with less cultural kinship (and capacity for comparison) to his own work.

Nobody, for example, is likely to see a lot of Mann’s bravado reflected in “Fill the Void” — the film I’m increasingly thinking could be the spoiler here. It would be a distinctly modest choice for the Lion, but not an irrelevant one. As I wrote in my review, Israeli director Rama Burshtein’s debut feature takes a bravely contentious stand on matters of religion and gender, and earned a smattering of boos amid the warm applause at its press screening, so it’d be a reasonably provocative choice.

In addition to Israeli juror Ari Folman (“Waltz With Bashir”), it’s not hard to imagine film finding support from several strong-minded women on the jury — Samantha Morton and Marina Abramovic among them. Handing the Golden Lion to a female director, meanwhile, would make for a subtly pointed rejoinder to Venice’s chief rival, Cannes — which controversially failed to include any women in its own competition this year. This is enough to make me relatively confident that “Fill the Void” is taking home something major tonight, whether or not Mann’s team think Burshtein’s ready for the big one.    

If not, the Best Actress prize for its strong female ensemble is a distinct possibility — though it’s hard to see who could compete with its luminous lead, Hadas Yaron, for the Best Young Actor prize. In a pleasing change from the usual awards routine, Best Actress is highly competitive this year, though it’s not a starry contest: Franziska Petri in “Betrayal,” Nora Aunor in “Thy Womb,” Maria Hofstatter in “Paradise: Faith” and Cho Min-soo in “Pieta” all have their champions.

I’m plumping for the latter, largely because Kim Ki-duk’s thriller has been one of the festival’s more enthusiastically received entries — it could even be in the hunt for the top prize. Annoyingly, it’s one of a couple of Competition films I missed, as schedule clashes conspired to make me miss each of its three screenings; should it take one of the top two awards, I’ll have a chance to rectify that tonight. (For the first time, I’m staying in town for the closing-night festivities.)

By contrast, Best Actor feels a leaner field. It’s not impossible that we could see it go to Dennis Quaid (for the too-swiftly dismissed “At Any Price”) or Toni Servillo (for Marco Bellocchio’s shrill, shallow but curiously popular “Dormant Beauty”) or even, if the jury’s in a silly mood, James Franco for his amusing white-gangsta routine in “Spring Breakers.” But this has felt like Joaquin Phoenix’s award to lose from the get-go, with his ‘difficult’ press-conference routine only raising his profile.

Venice has recently made a habit of giving at least one acting prize to a major international name, and it’s easy to see Phoenix following recent A-list winners like Colin Firth (“A Single Man”) and Michael Fassbender (“Shame”) to a busy awards-season run. (Yes, regardless of his antics, he’s very much in contention for an Oscar.) Phoenix’s odds slightly lessen those of “The Master” for the Lion: though Venice juries had no problem handing “Vera Drake” the top prize and Best Actress in 2004, they recently seem to have followed Cannes’s lead of keeping them separate. (“The Wrestler” may have taken hardware in 2008, but Mickey Rourke, somewhat absurdly, did not.)

With that, here are my best guesses for what will win tonight:


Golden Lion: “Fill the Void,” Rama Burshtein

Silver Lion (Best Director): “Pieta,” Kim Ki-duk

Special Jury Prize: “The Fifth Season,” Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth

Volpi Cup (Best Actor): Joaquin Phoenix, “The Master”

Volpi Cup (Best Actress): Cho Min-soo, “Pieta”

Osella Award (Best Screenplay): “Dormant Beauty,” Marco Bellocchio, Veronica Raimo, Stefano Rulli

Osella Award (Technical Achievement): “Betrayal” Oleg Lukhichev (cinematographer)

Marcello Mastroianni Award (Best Young Actor): Hadas Yaron, “Fill the Void”

And, just for fun, this is how I would distribute the awards were I running the jury — with the obvious caveat that I haven’t seen everything.


Golden Lion: “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson

Silver Lion (Best Director): “Betrayal,” Kirill Serebrennikov

Special Jury Prize: “Thy Womb,” Brillante Mendoza

Volpi Cup (Best Actor): Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Master”

Volpi Cup (Best Actress): Franziska Petri, “Betrayal”

Osella Award (Best Screenplay): “At Any Price,” Ramin Bahrani, Hallie Elizabeth Newton

Osella Award (Technical Achievement): “Betrayal” Oleg Lukhichev (cinematographer)

Marcello Mastroianni Award (Best Young Actor): Hadas Yaron, “Fill the Void”

I’ll be back tonight to report on the winners. Until then, sunshine and antipasti — and possibly, if I can muster it, a screening of Michael Cimino’s restored “Heaven’s Gate” — await.