Amos Gitai's Promised Land Wins Peace Prize in Venice

VENICE - "Vera Drake", Mike Leigh's tough tale of a working-class mother who is caught performing illegal abortions in 1950s England, scooped up the prizes at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday, including the coveted Golden Lion, while Israeli director Amos Gitai?s whose film ?Promised Land? entered the competition, was awarded a special prize for promoting peace through cinema.

Gitai's film, a French-Israeli co-production, tells the tale of women who are smuggled into Israel to serve in the sex trade. The movie is set to open in Israeli movie theaters at the end of October.

Gitai was not present at the awards ceremony, as he was heading to Toronto to attend the local film festival, which his film is also competing in. Gitai said "it is a great compliment for the entire crew. When neither side is willing to talk, movies constitute one of the last means for nonviolent communications between the people."

Another Israeli film, "Prendre Femme," directed by the brother and sister team of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, was awarded the crowd's favorite prize by the international critics and picked up a prize for marketing. The film tells the story of a family gathering in which relatives try to appease a quarrelling married couple. Ronit Elkabetz, who plays the leading part, is nominated for an Israeli academy award for her role.

The star of "Vera Drake," acclaimed British stage and film actress Imelda Staunton, also won the best actress award for her portrayal of a back-street abortionist who acts not for financial gain but out of concern for girls and women in trouble.

The winners were cheered at the gala ceremony in Venice's sumptuous La Fenice opera house, but the jury's failure to recognise the Italian favourite, Gianni Amelio's "Le Chiavi di Casa" ("The House Keys"), is sure to spark controversy at home.

International critics, however, had predicted "Vera Drake" would be the hands-down winner in the 61st year of the world's oldest cinema competition, where it faced 21 other films in the main section.

"It's a great honour," said British director Leigh as he accepted the Golden Lion. "I would like to thank most sincerely the Cannes film festival for rejecting this film so I could come to Venice," he joked.

The film raises difficult questions about abortion in a world where the wealthy have access to discreet and legal abortions and the poor throw themselves on the mercy of practitioners like Drake.

"The audience must walk away with a debate and struggle with it. These things are not black and white," Leigh said.

Staunton anchors the movie as a working mother who risks her close-knit family's love after a girl on whom she performs an abortion falls seriously ill and she is jailed.

Alejandro Amenabar's "Mar Adentro" ("Out to Sea"), the true story of a Spanish sailor who fought for 30 years for the right to die after a diving accident left him paralysed, also took home its fair share of prizes on Saturday.

The latest film by the director of "The Others" won the Jury Grand Prix, while the best actor prize went to Spain's Javier Bardem for his portrayal of Ramon Sampedro, the quadriplegic euthanasia activist whose wry humour seduced followers.

"3-iron", a poetic and beautifully filmed story about love and solitude by Kim Ki-Duk, who has been called "Korea's Michelangelo Antonioni", won the prize for best director.

Italian revolt? The two young actors in the Italian film "Lavorare con Lentezza" ("Working slowly") shared the prize for best young actor or actress, but the award is not likely to prevent a controversy over the fact that Amelio's "The House Keys" was completely overlooked.

Leading national newspapers had declared it the de facto winner of the Golden Lion as early as Friday.

The daily La Repubblica said on Saturday that festival heads Davide Croff and Marco Muller could be swept from their jobs "by vindictive powers" if "The House Keys" missed out.

Last year, another Italian entry that had been declared the winner on the eve of the awards ceremony was similarly bypassed. That failure was reported to be one of the reasons why Italian authorities sacked the directors of the 2003 festival.

"If by some whim or because of some stumbling block, mistake or act of disrespect, there is a setback, then an institutional revolt will break out," La Repubblica said.