VENICE (Reuters) - Judi Dench and Steve Coogan's heart-tugging "Philomena" continued to garner praise at the Venice Film Festival, while director Terry Gilliam's "The Zero Theorem" took viewers into a dystopian world in the latest competition offering on Monday.
Gilliam's film, which his legions of fans hope will mark a return to form for the maker of the cult classics "Twelve Monkeys" and "Brazil", stars Christoph Walz as a reclusive number cruncher whose computer rig resembles a video game.
Haunted by visions of a black hole, he has no friends, talks about himself in the first person plural and works for a "management" that wants to prove that everything equals nothing.
It elicited a few boos at the first festival showing but young Italian film bloggers said it captured the way people communicate and interact in the Internet age.
"Since Facebook, we work at home, we love at home and we never see each other," Matteo Bernardini of website Pointblank (www.pointblank.it) said after seeing the film, which also stars a singing pizza box.
Trade publication Variety said the main buzz as the festival hit midpoint, between the opening with space drama "Gravity" last Wednesday and the awarding of the Golden Lion on Saturday, was around "Philomena" and two other films, "Joe" and "Tracks".
The Nicolas Cage vehicle "Joe" tells the story of an ex-con mentoring a boy from a violent background and "Tracks" is based on the true story of a young woman's voyage of self discovery in a trek across the Australian desert with four camels.
Based on the real-life story of an elderly Irish woman's search for her child after nuns forced her to give him up for adoption, "Philomena" stars Dench in the title role and British comic Coogan as a world-weary journalist who agrees to write her story to try to rescue his flagging career.
"I was crying like crazy," one man who did not give his name said as he beat a hasty exit from a screening. Audiences packing rows to see the film have been crying, laughing and applauding.
One of the biggest laughs comes when Dench, whose impersonation of an Irishwoman is uncanny, flies to America with Coogan to track down her child, who would now be middle-aged.
Coogan, as journalist Martin Sixsmith, is used to business class, but Philomena is excited by the offer of a free cocktail.
"This is lovely, Martin," Dench says. "You have to pay for everything on Ryanair" - a reference to the European budget airline.
The film, co-written by Coogan who is a household name in Britain for his TV comedy about radio host Alan Partridge, strikes a good balance between drama and humor, Swedish critic Gunnar Rehlin of TT Spektra told Reuters.
"It's a serious film but with a laugh in the midst of all the necrophilia and etcetera," Rehlin said, referring to the grim themes such as taboo sex, domestic violence and incest that have permeated festival offerings this year.
Coogan, in an interview with Reuters Television, said adding a comic touch made the story more moving and palatable.
"That was my sort of dream in my head," he said, adding: "Wouldn't it be amazing if someone like Judi Dench would play this old Irish lady, I could play this journalist?"
Gilliam, who is yet to complete his ambitious project to adapt Cervantes's classic "Don Quixote", said he shot the new film in Bucharest, Romania, because it was cheaper than London.
"We were basically in the real world trying to make a surreal, futuristic movie," Gilliam told a news conference. "So it's that dynamic that is both dynamic, infuriating and surprising but this is the end result."
He said the film in part shows that the promise of the Internet to put everyone in touch with each other and with all knowledge may not be all it is cracked up to be.
The Arab Spring "was possible because of young people being able to communicate as they do with the web", Gilliam said.
"But then I wonder ... wow we see the exact same people that were running Egypt back in control. So I don't know, I worry."
"And I think if I can make a film that gets us talking, discussing, thinking, arguing, then that's a step towards a better solution for whatever problems we are dealing with."
Additional reporting by Juliane Keck and Isla Binnie; Editing by Pravin Char