VENICE Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere," an insider's look at the life of a Hollywood actor who becomes numb to life through drink, drugs and a string of one-night stands, won the top prize at the Venice film festival on Saturday.
The choice of the U.S. director's movie for the Golden Lion award will come as a surprise on the Lido waterfront, where reaction to the Los Angeles-based drama was mixed.
Coppola tells the story of Johnny Marco, an up-and-coming star whose days are divided between five-stars hotels, Ferraris and blonde pin-ups, but also loneliness, tiresome media attention and boredom.
Marco, played by Stephen Dorff, is finally faced with the question of where a life so enviable on the surface is ultimately heading when his 11-year-old daughter unexpectedly comes to stay with him.
The daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola, and an Oscar winner for her screenplay of "Lost in Translation," partly based the film on her own experiences as a young girl following her famous father from one hotel to another.
"Thanks to my Dad for teaching me," she said at the awards ceremony.
The director award went to Spain's Alex de la Iglesia for "Balada Triste de Trompeta" (The Last Circus), a horror film doubling as a metaphor for fascist Spain that split critics.
PRIZES FOR PALS?
Vincent Gallo won the best actor prize for his performance in "Essential Killing," where he plays a suspected Taliban fighter on the run from U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Europe.
Gallo, who does not utter a word in the film and has spent his time in Venice escaping paparazzi and wearing a balaclava to hide his face, did not take the stage to accept the award.
"Vincent, come on, are you here?" Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski said as he received the prize in Gallo's place.
Ariane Labed won the best actress prize for Greek father-daughter drama "Attenberg," while Monte Hellman scooped a special career award. He was in Venice with "Road to Nowhere."
The awards, which bring the curtain down on the 67th edition of the world's oldest film festival, are likely to fuel controversy.
Italian media have questioned whether jury president Quentin Tarantino, who is a close friend of Coppola as well as Hellman, would be influenced by a conflict of interest in his choices for the prizes.
Tarantino squarely rejected suggestions of favoritism.
"I wasn't going to let anything like that affect me at all. I was just going to literally respond to the film. There was no me steering any direction.
"Sofia doesn't know these other people (on the jury) and she won it fair and square in a completely unanimous vote," he said.
The 24-strong competition lineup, featuring the youngest group of directors in memory, had been seen by critics as strong and varied, providing everything from French comedy to Polish existential minimalism to effects-heavy Chinese costume drama.
But unlike 2009, when the hard-hitting war movie "Lebanon" was a popular winner, and 2008, when "The Wrestler" launched the surprise comeback of Hollywood outsider Mickey Rourke, this year lacked a defining moment that unites audiences.
Among those shunned by the seven-member jury was Natalie Portman, praised for her powerful turn as a disturbed dancer in "Black Swan."
Also popular with critics were "Venus Noire," the true story of a woman brought from South Africa to Europe in 1810 and turned into a freak show, and Chile's "Post Mortem," which looks at the 1973 military coup through the eyes of a morgue employee.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)