The Hollywood strike may have robbed Venice of its usual bevy of stars, but the world's oldest film festival, which concludes Saturday, proved it is still a launchpad for major awards contenders and political statements.
From sex-mad reanimated corpses to biopics of Enzo Ferrari, Priscilla Presley and Leonard Bernstein to devastating migrant dramas, there have been some very strong contenders at the 80th edition of the festival on the Lido island.
The year's Golden Lion is being decided by a jury led by director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and including Jane Campion and Laura Poitras, who won last year with Big Pharma documentary "All the Beauty and the Bloodshed".
The last of 23 films in competition was ‘Memory’, which screened on Friday and could be a last-minute contender for awards with its moving and morally complex tale of a recovering alcoholic befriending a man with dementia.
Its star, Jessica Chastain, was one of the few Hollywood stars able to attend the festival as the movie was given an exemption by striking unions because it was made outside the studio system.
Chastain backed the strikes, saying actors had been silenced for too long on "workplace abuse" and "unfair contracts". Adam Driver was also able to come for independent film ‘Ferrari’ from Michael Mann, and also backed the strikes.
But director David Fincher, who premiered his assassin movie ‘The Killer’ starring Michael Fassbender and has been closely associated with Netflix, triggered controversy by saying he understood "both sides".
Venice is well-timed for studios to launch their awards campaigns, and this year's festival had plenty of prestige fare.
Perhaps best-received by critics was ‘Poor Things’, a feminist reworking of Frankenstein which seems destined to earn nominations for Emma Stone with her hilarious and shockingly explicit turn as a sex-hungry reanimated corpse, which had Venice in stitches.
Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan also look like contenders for their roles in his elegant Bernstein biopic, ‘Maestro’.
And previous Golden Lion winner Sofia Coppola won strong reviews for her biopic of Elvis Presley's young wife, ‘Priscilla’. Critics were also impressed by two powerful migrant dramas.
"Io Capitano" by Italy's Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah) told the epic and brutally powerful story of a Senegalese teenager crossing Africa to reach Europe, with newcomer Seydou Sarr wowing audiences in the central role.
And "Green Border" offered a harrowing account of refugees trapped between Belarus and Poland during a real-life crisis on the EU border in 2021.
There were some duds, not least Luc Besson's ‘Dogman’ about an abused boy finding refuge with a pack of dogs and a drag show, that one critic called "the year's dumbest film".
Another strange entry was ‘El Conde’ by Chile's Pablo Larrain, which reimagined Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as a blood-sucking vampire.
At the more arthouse end of the spectrum was Bertrand Bonello's ‘The Beast’, starring Lea Seydoux, a surreal era-jumping love story with touches of David Lynch that got glowing reviews.
The strong competition line-up helped distract from the controversy around the inclusion of Roman Polanski in the out-of-competition section.
As a convicted sex offender, the 90-year-old director was already struggling to find distribution in the US and other countries for his slapstick comedy ‘The Palace’. The disastrous reviews at Venice will not have helped.
Currently holding a resounding zero percent on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, it was variously described as a "laughless debacle" and "soul-throttlingly crap" by critics.
Another director who has been effectively blacklisted in the US, Woody Allen, had a better time with his 50th film (and first in French), ‘Coup de Chance’, which was widely considered his best in at least a decade.