Venice (Reuters): The jury at the Venice Film Festival left critics and journalists perplexed and in some cases vexed when it awarded top prize to China's Still Life. Jia Zhang-Ke's picture, about two people searching for their partners as villages and towns are submerged by the giant Three Gorges Dam project in China, was introduced as a surprise entry at a point when the main competition was already nearly over. Many journalists at the 11-day movie marathon had not seen the film when the prizes were announced, and after a screening of the Golden Lion winner following the awards ceremony late yesterday the response of the packed theatre was muted.
''This verdict leaves people perplexed (and with Rome looming),'' said the headline in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, suggesting the jury had damaged Venice's reputation at a time when Rome is launching a rival festival. The article by Tullio Kezich goes on to question several decisions of a jury headed by French actress Catherine Deneuve. ''Apart from the award for Helen Mirren ... there is not much to agree on in the list of prizes,'' he wrote. Mirren won the best actress award for her portrayal of the British monarch in Stephen Frears' ''The Queen'', one of the few popular decisions alongside French veteran Alain Resnais' best director award for ''Private Fears in Public Places''. Eyebrows were raised over the choice of Ben Affleck as best actor for his role in ''Hollywoodland'', a performance that barely registered in pre-award speculation.
La Stampa newspaper stressed the political message of Still Life, saying a Chinese film against China had won. The Golden Lion came days after Chinese director Lou Ye was banned from making movies for five years for submitting Summer Palace, a romance set against the backdrop of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, in Cannes without official approval. Jia is regarded as an ''independent'' Chinese director, whose films are often not shown publicly in his home country because they are made without official permission. Still Life, although not overtly political, explores the social and environmental cost of the Three Gorges Dam project.
Set in soulless residential settings that scar the lush hills, characters are kicked out of their homes with no choice and little warning, families are separated and men risk their lives for low-paid work on construction sites. People seeking compensation for the upheaval are flatly refused, and angrily accuse officials of corruption. ''We all know there is major change going on in China and I wanted to get more people to know what's happening,'' Jia told reporters late in yesterday.
''I will continue to make films along these lines and explore the problems of the weaker social classes.'' More than one million people were flooded out of their homes by the world's largest hydroelectricity dam, a project mired in controversy for its impact on people and the environment. Italian newspapers reported today that the Venice jury had been split four to three over the main prize and held an extra meeting on Saturday morning to come to a decision.