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Israeli war film "Lebanon" wins top prize in Venice

By Mike Collett-White and Silvia Aloisi

VENICE (Reuters) - Hard-hitting Israeli war movie "Lebanon" won the Golden Lion for best picture at the Venice film festival on Saturday.

Director Samuel Maoz shot almost the entire drama, featuring graphic and disturbing scenes of violence, from inside a tank to communicate the claustrophobia and fear he experienced as a young Israeli conscript during the 1982 war.

He was so traumatized by his memories that it took him 25 years to gather the strength to make the movie, which the New York Times called "an astonishing piece of cinema."

"I dedicate this award to the thousands of people all over the world who, like me, come back from war safe and sound," the director told the closing ceremony in Venice. "Apparently they are fine, they work, get married, have children. But inside, the memory will remain stabbed in their soul."

Ang Lee, president of the jury and two-time Golden Lion winner, told reporters:

"We all come from different countries but we are happy that we are not inside that tank. It could be any tank and any war in the world, that's what is so precious about the film.

"Although it's a narrow point of view, that of Israeli soldiers, the ripple is incredible."

The announcement brought the curtain down on 11 days of movies, publicity and parties along the Lido waterfront, where George Clooney, Matt Damon, Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Viggo Mortensen and Omar Sharif walked the red carpet.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also put in an appearance signing autographs and looking every bit the Hollywood star in support of Oliver Stone's documentary "South of the Border."

Another frontrunner for the top prize, U.S. director Todd Solondz's comedy "Life During Wartime," won best screenplay.

IRAN PROTESTS IN SPOTLIGHT

Iranian video artist Shirin Neshat scooped the Silver Lion for best director for "Women Without Men," which chronicles the lives of four women from different walks of life against the backdrop of Iran's foreign-backed coup in 1953.

Neshat, one of three Iranian film-makers at the festival, said the story had strong parallels with the situation in her homeland today and the protests that followed the June presidential election.

"This film speaks to the people of Iran fighting to find democracy and it speaks to the government of Iran," she said.

"I plead to this government to give the people what they should have -- basic human rights, freedom and democracy," she added, wearing a green bracelet to symbolize the color of recent street protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Britain's Colin Firth won best actor for his turn as a gay professor mourning his lover in designer Tom Ford's debut picture "A Single Man," based on a Christopher Isherwood novel.

"It was a very personal journey for Tom, he trusted me with something that was very important for him, and it became very important for me," Firth said on the red carpet.

Russian Ksenia Rappoport picked up the best actress award for her portrayal of a mysterious hotel waitress in Giuseppe Capotondi's Italian competition entry "La Doppia Ora."

German-born Fatih Akin, who is of Turkish descent, took the special jury prize for comedy "Soul Kitchen," about a young restaurant owner who struggles to juggle his business with a long-distance relationship and a criminal brother.

Two prominent U.S. pictures were overlooked -- Michael Moore's attack on corporate greed in "Capitalism: A Love Story" and "The Road," John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's bleak, post-apocalyptic novel.

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