British, Mexican films lead race for Venice Golden Lion

VENICE: The 74th edition of the world's oldest film festival winds up Saturday after 10 days of black comedies, romances, family dramas, a musical and a horror so grisly it had audiences wriggling in their seats.

Gondoliers at the ready: the world's acting elite are heading across the lagoon to Venice's Lido for the Golden Lion ceremony, where British and Mexican films are frontrunners for the top award.

International film reviewers were royally tickled by British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's masterful Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri – though being a crowd pleaser in Venice is no guarantee of bagging a prize.

The man behind In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012) cast a brilliant Frances McDormand as a rage-fuelled grieving mother who takes on the town's revered chief of police when he fails to solve her daughter's murder.

Bets were also being placed on the enchanting sci-fi romance The Shape of Water by Mexican Guillermo Del Toro, the director behind such Gothic horrors as The Devil's Backbone (2001) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006).

The quirky, other-worldly tale set in the Cold War era sees a cleaner (Britain's Sally Hawkins) in a high-security government laboratory stumble across a classified experiment that leads to an unlikely and rather slimy love affair.

Del Toro described the flick as "an antidote to cynicism" and reviewers were hailing it as his greatest work yet.

The best actor and best actress awards are being fought over this year by Hollywood and arthouse giants Matt Damon, Ethan Hawke, Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand, Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland.

The international jury, lead by American actress Annette Bening, have their work cut out.

Love, fate, mafia

Damon starred in two films premiering at the festival: George Clooney's Suburbicon, a toxic depiction of 1950s America, and the popular opening flick Downsizing by Alexander Payne.

Set in the near future, the movie is based on the premise that scientists have found a way to literally reduce humanity's environmental footprint by downsizing humans to five-inch (12.5-centimetre) versions of themselves.

Hawke brought us a tortured chaplain consumed by personal loss in Paul Schrader's First Reformed, while Sutherland and Mirren flew the flag for love in later life in Italian Paolo Virzi's The Leisure Seeker.

For those who contend that Venice tends to reward the less mainstream works – those that push the boundaries in gruesomeness, or indulge in near-interminable philosophical reflections – there are three possible victors.

Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot is a surreal, off-balance and sometimes baffling family tragedy in three acts described by the Israeli director as "a dance of a man with his fate".

Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche, whose Blue Is the Warmest Colour won the Cannes Palme d'Or in 2013, brings us Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno, a slow-moving flick criticised for its obsession with the female body.

But the icky content warning comes with American Darren Aronofsky's mother!, a dark, allegorical portrayal of an unravelling couple, born of despair at the way the world is going, which opens with a heart being flushed down the toilet.

Those who like their violence a little more lighthearted will be rooting for the Italian Manetti Bros' "Love and Bullets", a comical musical about love and the mafia, where characters warble not only before kissing but also during shootouts. — AFP