Russian director Aleksander Sokurov's "Faust," a new take on the German legend about the quest for knowledge at all cost, won the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday.
"Faust" tells the tale of a professor, played by Johannes Zeiler, who craves knowledge and sells his soul for the love of Margarete, played by Isolda Dychauk. The Mephistopheles character is played by Anton Adasinskiy.
Dense and difficult to watch, "Faust" was nevertheless one of the critics' top choices among the 23 in-competition films at Venice this year. It marks the final chapter in Sokurov's four-film look at the relationship between man and power that began with "Moloch" in 1999 about Hitler, "Taurus" a year later about Lenin and the 2005 film "The Sun" about Japanese Emperor Hirohito.
At a post-award news conference, Sokurov made an impassioned plea for governments to continue supporting culture with state funds.
"Culture is not a luxury! It is the basis for the development of the society," he said, adding that he had even raised the issue with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a phone call just after he won.
"And so I am making an appeal to the Italian minister of culture: Thank you for existing! Insist with all methods you have on keeping culture."
Sokurov said working with the German cast was one of the most impressive experiences he has had in years, even if he still wonders whether a German director would have been better suited for the task.
"German culture is a fundamental one in Europe," he said.
Venice's best actor award went to Michael Fassbender for his portrayal as a sex addict in Steve McQueen's "Shame," while the best actress award went to Deanie Ip, who plays an aging domestic servant opposite her master in Hong Kong director Ann Hui's "A Simple Life."
"I can't believe how young and beautiful and sexy this woman is!" jury chair Darren Aronofsky gushed of Ip after the awards ceremony. He said the jury, which included David Byrne and Andre Techine, was moved by the message of Hui's film.
"It's an issue we deal with in every part of the world and ... to see a journey from health to death with such generosity was very touching," he said of "A Simple Life."
Ip, for her part, said the film made her realize that she wasn't getting any younger.
"I don't want to be a burden to anybody, and I really don't want to go to a senior home, so I will start planning when I go back to Hong Kong," she said.
Fassbender said he never had a doubt about taking on the graphic role of Brandon, a 30-something Manhattanite obsessed with sex. He said he had full faith in McQueen after taking part in his 2008 film "Hunger," which won the new director's prize in Cannes.
"He mentioned this to me in 2008 but I didn't need a script," Fassbender told reporters. "I was always going to jump on board with Steve. He always addresses the elephant in the room, and it was a matter of me not letting him down."
The Silver Lion prize for best director went to this year's surprise entry at the Lido, Beijing-based Shangjun Cai for "People Mountain People Sea." And the special jury prize went to the Italian-French production "Terraferma," about the influx of migrants to a tiny Italian island, by Emanuele Crialese.
All contenders at the world's oldest film festival were world premieres.