- Associated Press - Saturday, September 6, 2014

VENICE, Italy (AP) - Swedish director Roy Andersson won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion on Saturday for his absurdist drama “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.” That counts as a feel-good ending to a contest whose fare often grappled with war, death and depression, both emotional and economic.

The festival’s other avian contender, the widely praised Michael Keaton comeback movie “Birdman,” went home empty-handed, but still looks set to be an awards-season contender.

Andersson’s series of bleakly comic vignettes - imagine Monty Python directed by Ingmar Bergman - had some critics in raptures but left others scratching their heads. Set in a drab modern Sweden with occasional bursts of surrealism and song, “Pigeon” loosely follows two sad-sacks trying unsuccessfully to sell vampire teeth and other jokey novelties.

Andersson, 71, said earlier in the week that his goal was to find poetry in the banal. Accepting his award, the director said Italian films - especially Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist masterpiece “Bicycle Thieves” - had a major impact on him.

“You have such a fantastic film history,” he told his Italian hosts. “And I know that in Italy you have taste.”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful documentary about the legacy of Indonesian massacres, “The Look of Silence,” won the runner-up award, the Grand Jury Prize.

The festival’s Silver Lion for best director went to Russia’s Andrei Konchalovksy for “The Postman’s White Nights,” a largely silent drama set among villagers on a remote Russian island.

Rising Hollywood star Adam Driver - who appears in the upcoming “Star Wars” film - and Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher took the acting prizes for playing a couple whose transition to parenthood goes chillingly wrong in “Hungry Hearts.”

The festival jury, led by composer Alexandre Desplat, gave a screenplay award to Iranian director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Tehran-set “Tales,” and a special prize to Turkish director Kaan Mujdeci for “Sivas,” a drama about a neglected boy who forms a bond with a fighting dog.

Despite its scenes of death and everyday cruelty, Andersson’s very funny film was one of the gentler entries in a festival whose films often dealt with suffering, struggle and strife.

There was Ethan Hawke’s conscience-troubled drone pilot fighting the war on terror in Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill”; the starving Japanese soldiers driven to madness in Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Nobi: Fires on the Plain”; and Viggo Mortensen’s teacher dragged into Algeria’s battle for independence in David Oelhoffen’s “Far From Men.”

An economically bruised America was the backdrop for Ramin Bahrani’s Florida-set foreclosure tale “99 Homes” and Ami Canaan Mann’s riding-the-rails romance “Jackie and Ryan.”

Two of the most talked-about performances were by actors playing men battered by life. Al Pacino was a small-town Texas locksmith trapped in the past in David Gordon Green’s “Manglehorn.” And Keaton used memories of his “Batman” years to brilliant effect as an aging actor trying to regain his creative spark in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s satirical “Birdman.

Juror Tim Roth said “Birdman” was a good film that just didn’t make the cut in the jury’s deliberations.

But, the actor said, “there is nothing better than seeing Michael Keaton coming and kicking some ass.”

The world’s oldest film festival, now in its 71st year, prides itself on Italian sophistication, with a romantic setting - apart from the mosquitoes - on Venice’s lush Lido island. Pacino, Emma Stone, Owen Wilson, Uma Thurman, James Franco and Charlotte Gainsbourg were among the stars who walked the red carpet outside the Palazzo del Cinema.

But these are hard times for Venice and other film festivals, which are traditionally a way for movies to debut with a splash and build awards buzz. Competition for the big movies has grown fierce. Venice is up against rivals including Toronto and Telluride, both of which overlap it.

Festival director Alberto Barbera said he got “95 percent” of the films he wanted this year - but he lost out on a couple of big ones, including David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” which will premiere at the New York Film Festival.

Actor John Leguizamo, in Venice with modern-dress Shakespeare adaptation “Cymbeline,” said festivals like Venice were still essential.

“I think they remind Hollywood, or tell Hollywood, what they should appreciate,” he said. “Festivals are the guardians, the protectors of quality.”


Follow Jill Lawless at https://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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