* Venice film festival closes on Saturday
* The Master, Pieta among frontrunners for prizes
* Annual showcase lacked big stars in 2012
* Early Oscar buzz surrounds Master, Iceman
By Mike Collett-White and Silvia Aloisi
VENICE, Sept 7 The credits are about to roll on
this year's Venice film festival, and the world's oldest cinema
showcase pits Hollywood's finest against up-and-coming American
talent and movies by directors from South Korea, France and
The 11-day stretch of screenings, parties and interviews on
the Lido waterfront ends on Saturday with the awards ceremony
where the Golden Lion for best picture is handed out.
The prize is one of European cinema's most prestigious and
can help a small-budget movie not in English find an audience in
It also puts smaller U.S. productions in the awards frame at
the start of the journey to the Oscars, most notably "Brokeback
Mountain" in 2005 and "The Wrestler" three years later.
This year's frontrunners for jury president Michael Mann to
pick from include the ultra-violent Korean film "Pieta", Paul
Thomas Anderson's Scientology story "The Master" and French
1970s drama "Apres Mai".
Italy has a reasonable chance of a first home win in Venice
since 1998 with "Bella Addormentata" (Sleeping Beauty), the
well-received account of Eluana Englaro, centre of a 2009
right-to-die case that deeply divided opinion in the Catholic
And "wild card" possibilities include Russian adultery tale
"Betrayal" and raunchy American teen romp "Spring Breakers",
which features former Disney starlet Selena Gomez and
Oscar-nominated James Franco as an over-the-top gangster rapper.
The world's oldest film festival, which celebrates its 80th
anniversary this year, has been seen as a low-key edition with
too few stars to generate the kind of media buzz it thrives on.
But incoming director Alberto Barbera did present a
slimmed-down selection of movies that had enough quality to make
the trip to the notoriously expensive Canal City worthwhile.
"Despite falling audiences due to the economic crisis, a not
always glamorous red carpet and grey sky, it held its own with a
lineup that may not have been impressive but was still pretty
good," said La Stampa film critic Alessandra Levantesi Kezich.
VIOLENCE, RELIGION, UPHEAVAL, DEATH
Dozens of movies have screened outside the main competition,
including opening film "The Reluctant Fundamentalist", serial
killer drama "The Iceman" and Robert Redford's political
thriller "The Company You Keep".
In The Iceman, Michael Shannon gives a memorable performance
as real-life mobster hitman Richard Kuklinski, while in The
Company You Keep, Shia LaBeouf shines as a reporter hot on the
trail of Redford's character, a former leftwing militant.
But as the curtain comes down on the festival, it is the
18-film competition that is the main focus.
Kim Ki-duk would be a popular winner if Pieta scoops the top
prize. Although hard to watch for scenes of brutality, it is an
absorbing study of the relationship between a cruel yet needy
young man and mysterious older woman claiming to be his mother.
The Master features two standout performances by Philip
Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix which could put them both on
the road to Oscar recognition early next year.
Anderson's story, set during the early days of the Church of
Scientology and featuring Hoffman as founder L. Ron Hubbard, has
the added advantage of dealing with a subject matter many
directors in Hollywood would consider taboo.
Apres Mai, which has the English title "Something in the
Air", follows a group of students caught up in the aftermath of
the French protests of 1968.
Some veterans came away from Venice with reputations dented.
American Brian De Palma brought "Passion", which has its
world premiere on Friday, but the sexual thriller starring
Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace as rival executives drew jeers
after it was screened to the press.
And compatriot Terrence Malick presented "To the Wonder", an
impressionistic portrayal of love with virtually no dialogue
which some critics defended but many panned.
The reclusive American does not attend events to launch his
movies, but the fact that lead actors Ben Affleck, McAdams and
Javier Bardem did not make the trip to Venice contributed to the
sense of anti-climax.
Barbera said the low star wattage was a matter of timing
more than a sign of Venice's longer term decline, in the face of
growing competition from the bigger and cheaper Toronto film
festival with which it overlaps.
"I'd be happy if every evening we could have 10 stars on the
red carpet, but there isn't always a Brad Pitt film available,"
he told a press conference.
He also introduced a small market in Venice to make the
festival more commercially attractive to studio executives
buying and selling films, and, although few deals were done,
participants said it had potential for the future.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)