Dark ‘Joker’ wins top Venice Film Festival prize

Todd Phillips’ dark comic book film “Joker” won the Golden Lion Award at the 76th Venice International Film Festival on Saturday and cemented its place as a legitimate contender for the rest of the awards season.

Jury president Lucretia Martel announced the winners of the prestigious award during a ceremony on the Lido. The Golden Lion previously put a spotlight films that went to be major awards season players, such as “Roma” and “The Shape of Water,” which would go on to win best picture.

“I want to thank Warner Bros. and DC for stepping out of their comfort zone and taking such a bold swing on me and this movie,” Phillips said with star Joaquin Phoenix by his side on stage.

Phoenix did not win the best actor prize — it went to Italian actor Luca Marinelli for the Jack London adaptation “Martin Eden” — but the director of “Joker” dedicated much of his speech to the talents of his leading man.

In the film, he transforms from struggling stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck into Batman’s classic nemesis.

“Thank you for trusting me with your insane talents,” Phillips said to Phoenix.

Roman Polanski’s Dreyfus affair film, “An Officer and a Spy,” won the grand jury prize, which recognizes other strong contenders for the Golden Lion.

Polanski, who fled the U.S. after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl and has been a fugitive for over 40 years, was not at the ceremony to accept the award.

The inclusion of “An Officer and a Spy” among the 21 films competing for the Golden Lion was widely criticized, although it was welcomed warmly by Venice Film Festival audiences. Jury president Martel issued a statement saying that while she does not “separate the art from the artist,” she bore no prejudice toward Polanski’s film.

Roy Andersson won best director for “About Endlessness,” although hip complications prevented him from accepting the award in person.

Actress Ariane Ascaride took the best actress prize for the French domestic drama “Gloria Mundi.” Olivia Colman won best actress in Venice last year for “The Favorite,” and went on to win the best actress Oscar.

Best screenplay went to Yonfan for the animated film “No. 7 Cherry Lane,” about Hong Kong in 1967. He thanked Hong Kong for giving him the freedom to create.

Toby Wallace won best new talent award for his work in Shannon Murphy’s “Babyteeth.”

“We can’t believe we’re here in general, so anything extra is super nice,” Wallace said.

He thanked co-stars Eliza Scanlen and Ben Mendelsohn, as well as Murphy, his director. She was one of only two female directors in the main competition.

“(Murphy) led us into this project with so much honesty,” Wallace said.

Adapted from Rita Kalnejais’ comedic stage play, “Babyteeth” is about an ill teenage girl who falls in love with a small-time drug dealer.

The jury that chose the winner of the Golden Lion and other top awards was headed by Martel, an Argentine director, and included director Mary Harron, actress Stacy Martin, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and Toronto International Film Festival executive director Piers Handling.

Notable films in the main competition leaving the Lido empty-handed include the Brad Pitt space epic “Ad Astra,” Steven Soderbergh’s Meryl Streep-led Panama Papers comedy “The Laundromat,; and Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama “Marriage Story,” with Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.

The Venice Film Festival also handed out prizes to a diverse array of films in other sections, like Venice Classics, Virtual Reality and Horizons.

In Venice Classics, best documentary went to “Babenco: Tell Me When I Die,” about the late Brazilian filmmaker Hector Babenco, who was known for his socially conscious works. Director Bárbara Paz said the prize was very important to her country.

“”We must say ‘no’ to censorship,” Paz said. “Long (live) freedom of expression, long (live) Brazil cinema.”

“You Will Die at Twenty,” from Sudanese director Amjad Aby Alala, was awarded the Luigi de Laurentiis award for a debut film.

“I’m really feeling honoured and happy,” Alala said. “I’m from a country that has no cinema because we are under regime that didn’t want to support cinema.”

“Daughters of Chibok,” about Boko Harem’s abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria, won best VR story.

Nigerian director Joel Kachi Benson said he wanted to, “Take the world to Chibok and show them these women who for five years have been living in pain because their daughters are still missing.”

In the Horizons sections, director Saim Sadiq accepted the award for best short film for “Darling,” about the transgender community in Pakistan.

The Horizons special jury prize went to “Verdict,” about domestic abuse in the Philippines, from director Raymund Ribay Gutierrez.

“The struggle for battered women continues, and I hope the film can reach people that can make a difference,” Gutierrez said.

Finally, the Horizons best film award went to the Ukrainian film “Atlantis,” directed by Valentyn Vasyanovych, about a near-future dystopia in eastern Ukraine and a former soldier suffering from PTSD.

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