VENICE (Reuters) - Jury president Quentin Tarantino faced charges of favoritism Sunday after he handed out two major awards at Venice film festival to his friends, including best picture to his ex partner Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere."
Another friend and mentor Monte Hellman landed a special career award, and Spanish entry "Balada Triste de Trompeta," which picked up the director and screenplay prizes for Alex de la Iglesia, was widely panned by critics on the Lido waterfront.
Add to that a best actor award for Vincent Gallo in "Essential Killing," during which he uttered not a single word, and no prizes for Italian films, and Saturday's closing ceremony was one of the most unpredictable in years.
"The (jury) presidency of Quentin Tarantino runs the risk of being the most obvious conflict of interest, given that Somewhere and (Hellman's) Road to Nowhere seemed charming and intriguing but nothing more," wrote Paolo Mereghetti, veteran film critic for Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Sunday.
Tarantino was quick to reject suggestions of favoritism.
"I wasn't going to let anything like that affect me at all," he told reporters after the awards were announced at the end of the September 1-11 festival. "I was just going to literally respond to the film. There was no me steering any direction."
Somewhere, which won the prestigious Golden Lion best picture award, is an insider's look at the life of a Hollywood actor who becomes numb to life through drink, drugs and a string of one-night stands, and stars Stephen Dorff as Johnny Marco.
His days are divided between five-stars hotels, Ferraris and blonde pin-ups, but also loneliness, tiresome media attention and boredom, and he is finally faced with the question of where a life so enviable on the surface is ultimately heading.
The daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola partly based the film on her own experiences as a young girl following her famous father from one hotel to another.
Coppola's victory at least guarantees a high-profile end to a festival which many experts feel has been overshadowed this year by up-and-coming rival Toronto, which overlaps with Venice and is attracting many of the industry's biggest names.
Balada Triste de Trompeta (The Last Circus) was ranked 17th out of 24 competition films in an informal critics' poll published for journalists in Venice.
The ultra-violent horror movie, which doubles as a metaphor for fascist Spain, was described in reviews as "the demented Spanish circus movie" and "loud, tedious and unattractive in every sense," although it had a handful of avid supporters.
A prize for Gallo's speechless turn as a suspected Taliban fighter on the run from U.S. troops came as less of a surprise, although it highlighted his bizarre behavior at the festival.
The actor and director shunned all publicity, arriving in Venice in a balaclava and refusing to hold a press conference for his own competition movie "Promises Written in Water." He did not take the stage to accept his award.
Some of the competition's best liked films and performances were overlooked, including that of Natalie Portman, who won praise for her powerful turn as a disturbed dancer in "Black Swan."
Also popular with critics were "Venus Noire," the true story of a woman brought from South Africa to Europe in 1810 and turned into a freak show, and Chile's "Post Mortem," which looks at the 1973 military coup through the eyes of a morgue employee.
"Potiche," a 1970s comedy starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, left empty-handed as well.