BERLIN (Reuters) - Iranian drama "Nader and Simin: A Separation" won the Golden Bear for best picture at the Berlin film festival on Saturday, while its ensemble cast also picked up the best actor and actress prizes on a triumphant night.
Director Asghar Farhadi's portrayal of a marriage in crisis was firm favorite for the coveted award, and its victory was the first for an Iranian picture, Berlin organizers said.
In the movie, one family is pitted against another in a gripping legal tussle which highlights the gap between middle class "intellectuals" and poorer, traditional Iranians for whom religious beliefs and honor tend to be more important.
It was praised for its subtle exploration of Iran's class divisions and religious conservatism, which it managed to combine with the tension of a crime thriller. The acting awards were a bonus for Farhadi, whose daughter Sarina starred.
Farhadi paid tribute to fellow Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi, who was unable to accept Berlin's invitation to sit on the main jury after being sentenced to six years in jail and banned from making movies or traveling abroad for 20 years.
He stands accused of inciting opposition protests in 2009 and making a film without permission, and his sentence has caused an outcry in the movie making world.
"I want to remind you of Jafar Panahi," Farhadi told the glitzy awards ceremony. "I really think his problem will be solved, and I hope he will be the one standing here next year."
When asked to speak about the situation in Iran, he replied: "I can either say what you want me to say and the result would be that I get into trouble and couldn't make films anymore.
"Or I can say as much as I'm allowed to and continue making films. I prefer making my films. I'm not a hero, I'm a film maker," he told reporters, adding that he spoke to Panahi after receiving the Golden Bear.
Panahi's absence was marked with an empty chair alongside jury head Isabella Rossellini at the opening press conference, and some German media have dubbed this year's cinema showcase the "Iranian Berlinale."
The runner-up film prize went to Hungarian director Bela Tarr's black-and-white "The Turin Horse," a slow-moving, bleak feature about a farmer and his daughter's forsaken lives in a windswept, isolated house.
The love-it-or-loathe-it picture, which Tarr has said would be his last, sharply divided critics, but its stark images, sparse dialogue and relentlessly droning score were considered among the most memorable at this year's festival.
"That is true it is my last film. The last so-called Tarr film," he told reporters after receiving his award.
"I believe that in this film everything comes together. Everything is contained in this film -- everything that I believe needs to be shown in film, i.e. everything that uses the language of film."
One of the few surprises at the awards, which wound up the 10-day event where hundreds of new films are shown to the press and potential buyers, was the best director prize to Germany's Ulrich Koehler for the generally unfancied "Sleeping Sickness."
Best script went to Joshua Marston and Andamion Murataj for "The Forgiveness of Blood," which looks at the sometimes tragic consequences of ancient codes governing blood feuds which are still enforced in some parts of rural Albania today.
"The Prize," a story set in Argentina, picked up two technical awards, and the Alfred Bauer Prize for innovation went to German entry "If Not Us, Who."