VENICE (Reuters) - Eleven days of red carpet galas, 21 films in competition and countless interviews, photo calls and parties at the Venice film festival boiled down to just one man in the end -- Mickey Rourke.
The festival, which unofficially kick-starts the awards season leading to the Oscars, will be remembered chiefly for Rourke's performance in Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler", which the actor and critics agree is his best yet.
"The roar of Rourke" read the headline in the Corriere della Sera newspaper on Sunday.
The movie about an ageing wrestler who despairs as his body gives up on him and friends and family turn their backs, won the coveted Golden Lion award for best movie on Saturday.
The award seals his comeback from the Hollywood wilderness, and comments that Rourke is ready to ditch his bad-boy image and cooperate with directors suggest there is more to come.
"A guy like me changes hard, I didn't want to change, but I had to change," the star of 1980s hits "9-1/2 Weeks" and "Angel Heart" told Reuters in an interview in Venice.
"It's OK for me now at this point in my life to play ball, to be a team player," added the 51-year-old, his face marked by surgery for various boxing injuries.
Rourke's triumph, and unanimous praise for Aronofsky's low-budget picture, means the festival ended on a high.
But critics were underwhelmed by many of the films in the main competition, and debated whether the Hollywood writers' strike, selection mistakes or plain bad luck were to blame.
WIN MAY LURE HOLLYWOOD
Italian newspapers said the choice of "The Wrestler" for Golden Lion may help Venice lure U.S. movies, and with them top stars, to the Lido waterfront in the future as it strives to compete with rival festivals like Toronto.
"A verdict that rewards Hollywood, albeit in its independent incarnation, could be very useful ... in attracting other films of this genre to the Lido," wrote veteran film writer Paolo Mereghetti in Corriere della Sera.
There was controversy at Saturday's closing ceremony when jury president Wim Wenders criticized rules which prevent the Golden Lion winner also picking up best acting prizes -- suggesting Rourke should have won that too.
Italian newspapers said the comments detracted from the best actor award to home grown Silvio Orlando for his acclaimed portrayal of an overprotective father in "Il Papa di Giovanna" (Giovanna's Father).
The Silver Lion for best director was won by Russia's Alexei German Jr. for "Paper Soldier", set on the windswept steppes of Kazakhstan and centring on the 1960s Soviet space program.
The best actress prize went to France's Dominique Blanc in "L'Autre" (The Other One), a haunting tale of a woman who becomes dangerously obsessed with a young ex-boyfriend.
"Teza", by Ethiopian director Haile Gerima, picked up two prizes -- the special jury award and best screenplay.
The story chronicles the life of an Ethiopian intellectual who flees his country during the Marxist "red terror" in the 1980s, only to be attacked in Germany by racist youths.
Jennifer Lawrence of the United States was named best emerging actress for her role in "The Burning Plain", in which she appeared alongside Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron.
As well as "The Wrestler", "The Hurt Locker" by U.S. director Kathryn Bigelow impressed critics with its portrayal of the perils faced by a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, while actress Anne Hathaway generated awards buzz in "Rachel Getting Married".