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Nomadland makes history and stirs Oscars buzz with festival prize

Writer-director Chloe Zhao

Writer-director Chloe ZhaoCredit:Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

Given that Nomadland had already earned a suite of five-star reviews, its success was much more widely expected than last year’s American winner, Joker. Audiences also loved the film unreservedly, giving it the most rousing applause of any at a festival that was comparatively muted by compulsory wearing of masks and the reduced numbers in theatres where only every second seat was occupied. There was also universal acclaim for the smooth operation of the anti-COVID measures at the first major film event to go ahead since the pandemic struck, especially given that the festival has a long-standing reputation for chaotic disorganisation. As one local journalist observed, flood-prone Venice knows how to rise to the occasion in a crisis.

Vanessa Kirby – lately Princess Margaret in The Crown − was another popular choice as winner of the Volpi Cup for best actress in Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s English-language Pieces of a Woman, about a couple whose baby dies a few minutes after birth. In a selection where eight of the 18 competing films were directed by women, the jury had “so many extraordinary performances to choose from”, Blanchett said. Pickings in the masculine category were clearly fewer; the cup for best actor went to Italian actor Pierfrancesco Favino, who plays the adult protagonist in the bland story of a childhood friendship across the political divide, Padrenostro.

Frances McDormand in a scene from the film Nomadland.

Frances McDormand in a scene from the film Nomadland.Credit:Searchlight Pictures via AP

In an emotional speech, Kirby paid tribute to the anonymous woman who let her watch her deliver her child, which she said made it possible to play the role, and to another woman who had lost a baby in a similar way and was an adviser throughout the film shoot. She also said how overwhelmed she was to be receiving a prize from a long-standing acting idol. “You are one of my biggest inspirations,” she told Cate Blanchett. “So thank you so much.”

Other winners included Mexican director Michel Franco’s New Order, a gut-wrenching account of a dystopian near future racked by revolution, which took the Grand Prix; Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who was named best director for his stylish Wife of a Spy, about a well-to-do couple leaking Japanese secrets during World War II that set a tone somewhere between Ozu and Hitchcock; and old-school Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky, who skipped up to the stage at the age of 83 to collect a jury prize for Dear Comrades, about a brutally repressed factory revolt that took place in a Russian provincial town in 1962.

Australian film The Furnace was competing in the festival’s Horizons stream for new directors and formally innovative work. French film-maker Claire Denis was president of a separate jury, which gave its top prize to an Iranian film The Wasteland, directed by Ahmed Bahrami, about tensions at a provincial brickworks threatened with closure. Many of the winners will also be seen in the Toronto Film Festival, which launched as an online event last Thursday, further propelling the sense that the COVID-era Oscars next year could feel almost normal after all.

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