VENICE: South Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta” and U.S. director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” are tipped as the critics’ favorites to win the coveted Golden Lion award Saturday night.
The two are among the 18 movies in competition at the world’s oldest film festival, where stars, auteurs and industry honchos have been rubbing shoulders at the seaside for nearly two weeks of art house cinema.
The selection is “the best around,” said festival director Alberto Barbera.
Among the other notable entries this year have been the poignant first feature by U.S.-born Israeli director Rama Burshtein about a confused young girl coming of age in a tradition-bound Orthodox Hasidic community in Tel Aviv.
French director Olivier Assayas’ tribute to idealistic youngsters in the early 1970s in “Apres mai” (“Something in the Air”) has also been winning rave reviews, along with cult U.S. director Terrence Malick’s elegiac “To the Wonder.”
A major theme underlying the festival this year has been the crisis of spirituality – the heart of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s entry “Paradies: Glaube” (“Paradise: Faith”) which has also caused ripples at the fest.
Fans also crowded the festival area for “Spring Breakers” starring former Disney stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens and for “Bad 25” – a documentary by Spike Lee about the music of the late Michael Jackson.
Pooling the judgment of 23 film critics, the daily bulletin at the festival “Venezia News” have named “Pieta” the favorite so far.
With a title inspired by Michelangelo’s heart-wrenching statue of the Virgin Mary holding her son’s body, the bleak morality tale about a brutal loan shark has captured viewers’ hearts.
Kim said his movie was “dedicated to humankind in a situation of a deep crisis in extreme capitalism,” adding that for him there were three protagonists – the loan shark, the woman claiming to be his mother and money.
Italian daily La Repubblica said “Pieta” was “the shock film” of the festival and had “conquered audiences with an avalanche of applause for this extreme story of characters torn between revenge and compassion.”
The 51-year-old Kim is no stranger to Venice, where he won the Silver Lion award for best director in 2004 for “Bin-jip” (“3-iron”), but the low-budget filmmaker is still seen as a bit of an outsider in the Korean film industry.
The new movie by Oscar-winner Anderson – the man behind “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood” – is tipped to be a close second with a story inspired by the early days of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s.
The charismatic leader is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but the standout performance in this film is by Joaquin Phoenix as his troubled disciple. An alcoholic World War II veteran, Phoenix’s character becomes “guinea pig and protege” to Hoffman who has founded a movement called “The Cause.”
“I think we’re just trying to tell a love story about these guys,” Anderson said. He added that the story was set in the postwar era when there was “a tremendous amount of hope but a lot of bodies in the background.”
The discordant string music by musician and composer Jonny Greenwood – best known as a member of the British rock band Radiohead – and the minutely studied period set details add value to this hypnotic work.
Phoenix is seen as a possible best actor award winner Saturday along with Italy’s Toni Servillo who plays the part of a Sicilian father crushed by fate in “E’ stato il figlio” by Daniele Cipri about a family in crisis.
The best actress award is still seen as wide open at the festival, which organizers said has given women their rightful place in the cinema world by including 21 female directors out of the total of 52 films being shown.
The last word on the winners will of course be up to a nine-person jury presided this year by influential Hollywood director, screenwriter and producer Michael Mann, who has kept his preferences a closely guarded secret.
The award ceremony kicks off Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (1730 GMT).