MostLido regulars agreed that it was the strongest Venice in years, if one lookedbeyond the merely average competition to consider the festival as a whole.

But it was also one of the most front-loaded festivalsanyone could remember. In the first four days, Ang Lee, George Clooney and ParkChan-wook led the competition assault troops, Tsui Hark, Steven Soderbergh,Lasse Halstrom and Andrew Lau kept the big guns booming in the out-of-competitionrearguard, and even the ultra-arthouse Horizons sidebar strafed us with thesniper fire of a solid, commercial drama, Isabel Coixet's The Secret Life ofWords. It wasn't until Day Five that festival director Marco Muller let ussleep - by programming the poorly received Elizabethtown and TheBrothers Grimm.

The jury clearly felt the same way: by Day Five, they'd seenall the films they considered worthy of prizes, except for Abel Ferrara'sobtuse but compelling Catholic docu-drama, Mary (Special Jury Prize),and Cristina Comencini's visually flat but emotionally incisive child-abuseyarn The Beast in the Heart (Best Actress for Giovanna Mezzogiorno).

Many thought that Good Night, and Good Luck, GeorgeClooney's austere, controlled study of a time when journalistic ethics actuallymeant something, should have pipped Brokeback Mountain to the GoldenLion.

But the six-man jury, presided over by Italian set designerDante Ferretti, made up for the slight by awarding a merited Best Actor prizeto David Strathairn for his uncanny morph into broadcaster Edward R Murrow - theCBS anchorman who stood up to the bullying tactics of Commie-baiting senatorJoseph McCarthy - and an equally deserved Best Screenplay prize to thefour-hander script by Clooney and his production partner, Grant Heslov.

And in the end, Brokeback was a worthy recipent ofthe first US Golden Lion since Robert Altman's Short Cuts in 1992. Thiscowboys-in-love saga is Ang Lee's best film to date - Crouching Tiger,Hidden Dragon included. It's also a frustrating one for European cineastes,as it exhibits everything that used to be great about European cinema: anintelligent script, finely nuanced characters, the courage, and the ability, toslow down the pace without boring the audience, and sterling work in all thetechnical departments, from cinematography to costume design.

If this year's competition were judged solely on itsEuropean titles, it would be considered seriously disappointing. Only PatriceChereau's Gabrielle and Krzysztof Zanussi's Persona Non Gratastood out from the arthouse herd.

Chereau's film was certainly original: a dour, stylisedperiod drama starring Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert (awarded a "SpecialLion", presumably because of jury dissent over the Best Actress prize), it wasimpressive and powerful, if not exactly likeable. Veteran Polish directorZanussi's tale of sparring older career diplomats had a polished, old-fashioneddramatic cohesion and featured a fine performance from Zanussi regular ZbigniewZapasiewicz. But neither these two, nor any of the other European films incompetiton, had the breakout box-office potential of last year's strongestEuro-contenders, Vera Drake and The Sea Inside.

Themuch-vaunted Asian slant of this year's fest was borne out on the day more bythe intriguing "Secret History of Asian Cinema" retropective than by anythingthat screened in competition - unless, of course, one takes Ang Lee to be anAsian auteur .

Takeshi Kitano's woefully self-indulgent cinematicdivertissement Takeshi's was a surprise last-minute competition entrythat turned out to be the wrong sort of surprise.

Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan's Shanghai period piece EverlastingRegret was beautiful but empty. The only real Asian discovery was Hongyan(Dam Street) by Chinese woman director Li Yu: a moving, sensitively-shotgenerational love story set in provincial Sichuan, which screened in theHorizons sidebar, the film more than confirmed the promise of the director'sfirst feature, Fish and Elephant.

If last year's Venice will go down in history as the yeareverything ran late, the clockwork-smooth 62nd edition will be remembered asthe American Venice. Director Marco Muller had anticipated as much at the presslaunch in July; one just hopes that Europe's prostration on the Lido is atemporary blip on the screen, rather than evidence of a chronic wastingdisease.