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VENICE (Reuters) - Jury president Quentin Tarantino faces a tough choice as the Venice film festival winds to a close Saturday, with no clear frontrunner emerging for the coveted Golden Lion awarded each year to the best picture.
The 24-strong competition line-up, featuring the youngest group of directors in memory, has been seen by critics as strong and varied, providing everything from French comedy to Polish existential minimalism to effects-heavy Chinese costume drama.
But unlike 2009, when the hard-hitting war movie "Lebanon" was a popular winner, and 2008, when "The Wrestler" launched the surprise comeback of Hollywood outsider Mickey Rourke, this year has lacked a defining moment that unites audiences.
"The film average is very good, but there's been nothing to fall in love with," Il Foglio said in a recent editorial, although the Italian daily did later identify "Venus Noire" as a worthy contender for prizes.
Among the favorites are Chinese entry "The Ditch," about the plight of political prisoners deported to labor camps in 1950s China, and Russian film "Silent Souls," a contemplative study of a fading minority culture and obsessive love.
Venus Noire, the true story of a woman brought from South Africa to Europe in 1810 and turned into a freak show, could touch a chord given director Abdellatif Kechiche's argument that its themes of intolerance and racism are still relevant today.
"Post Mortem" looks at Chile's military coup of 1973 through the eyes of a man working in a morgue, and "Meek's Cutoff" is a retelling of the Hollywood western through the eyes of a group of women stranded in the American desert.
French comedy "Potiche," starring veterans Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, was popular, while Spain's "Balada Triste de Trompeta," about a love triangle set in a circus, divided audiences but had some fervent admirers.
Bearing in mind Tarantino's debt to Asian cinema and the martial arts genre in particular, Takashi Miike's "13 Assassins" is regarded as an outsider, as is "Black Swan," a psychological thriller in which Natalie Portman shines as a disturbed dancer.
Portman is a strong contender for best actress and has generated some early Oscar buzz on the Lido waterfront, while Venus Noire star Yahima Torres impressed with her feature debut.
Among actors, Vincent Gallo as a suspected Taliban fighter on the run in "Essential Killing" and Paul Giamatti in book adaptation "Barney's Version" are in the running for a prize.
Outside the main competition, Joaquin Phoenix documentary "I'm Still Here" provided the main talking point, with viewers unsure whether the disturbing and unflattering portrait of an artist in crisis was genuine or an elaborate hoax.
Director Casey Affleck, Phoenix's brother-in-law, insisted there was no hoax, but nagging doubts remain.
Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton