Critical wrap

Marco Mueller may have been pipped to the post by a fictitious candidate, L.K. Ching, in an informal poll of (mostly Italian) festivalgoersorganised outside Venice's Casino to choose the next festival director(it was 603 for Ching, 601 for Muller).

But most international festivalhabitues agreed that Mueller had come up with a strong 2007 line-up,despite growing pressure from upstart rival Rome.

Mueller's pre-festivalcontention that the unprecendented crop of six US titles (and one US-UKco-production) in the main competition would be justified by thequality of the films was largely proved right.

The Assassination ofJesse James relaunched the Western - once again - and earned Brad Pitta Best Actor award (never mind that it should have gone to his co-starCasey Affleck), Brian de Palma's powerful Iraqi war film Redacteddivided critics but was nothing if not provocative, while Tony Gilroy'sMichael Clayton turned out to be a tasty thriller with a tough 1970ssoul.

Todd Haynes baffled many with his conceptual Dylan biopic I'm Not There, but it was an intriguing journey with an astonishing, androgynous Dylan turn from Best Actress Cate Blanchett - and surely one of the most star-studded experimental movies of all time.

And if the Asian contingent wasa little thinner than in past editions, it contained some gems. One wasthe Golden Lion winner, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution - a slow-burn tale ofpassion and espionage that soared above its clunky narrative casing.Another, for some, was Taiwanese entry Help Me Eros, a poignant storyof urban solitude with lashings of hardcore sex.

French-Tunisian director AbdellatefKechiche's The Secret of the Grain confirmed the promise of L'Esquive(though it took almost three hours to do so), while veteran auteurNikita Mikhalkov showed that he was still going strong, narrowlymissing out on the top prize with 12, his intensely Russian take on theLumet classic Twelve Angry Men. And an almost dialogue-free outsider,the haunting Spanish film En la Ciudad de Sylvia, infuriated andenthralled critics in more or less equal measure.

True, the parallel Horizons section,dedicated to more alternative fare, was a much more mixed bag thisyear. But as Mueller is well aware, any major film festival is judged on the strength of its main competition rather than the heft of its sidebars.