The main competition jury managed to shirkoff local pressure and pre-release publicity for Marco Bellocchio'slocal favourite Buongiorno, Notte and indoing so proved wrong detractors who have warned that Venice is becoming parochial. Alerted to a lesserprize than the Golden Lion, Bellocchio returned to Rome to work off his anger.

Itwould not have been a scandal had Bellocchio won, ashe delivered a solid drama with mounting tension between a group of terroristswho kidnapped the Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in1978. But the picture means more to Italian audiences than to anyone else andthere were better films to be had elsewhere in the festival.

Pre-festivalindications that this was going to be one of the best Venice festivals for a number of years - atleast for those who go to festivals primarily to watch films - were largelyborne out. For those who use it as a marketplace things were distinctly quiet.

Filmof the festival in terms of sheer pleasure quotient had to be Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation,a hilarious, but ultimately also moving, romantic comedy with standoutperformances by Bill Murray and Scarlet Johanssen -who was awarded the Best Actress prize. If Billy Wilder were to rise from thegrave to direct a remake of BriefEncounter set in Tokyo, it might look something like this.Japanese critics, however, were less impressed, accusing the film of peddlingracist stereotypes.

Lost In Translation was, somewhat bafflingly, not in the main Venezia 60 competition but in the parallel Controcorrente or Upstream selection, which in the words offestival director Moritz de Hadeln was dedicated to"a different kind of cinema". It is difficult to imagine in what way Lost In Translation qualifies as more"different" than, say, Bruno Dumont's main competition Twentynine Palms, a self-indulgent arthouse drool which was almost universally derided.

On thepost-your-comment board outside the Casino, one punter wrote "If Twentynine Palms is art, SilvioBerlusconi is a politician". Another weak link in the competition line-upwas Christopher Hampton's flaccid and embarrassing Imagining Argentina, though even this earned warm applause, awayfrom the critics, at its gala screening.

Over the course of the twelve-day celluloid feast,four main contenders for the Golden Lion emerged. The local hope was veteranauteur Bellocchio's Buongiorno, Notte. Festival darling Takeshi Kitanocame up with a thoroughly enjoyable samurai romp, Zatoichi, while the great whitehope of Mexican cinema, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu,gave a dour but technically masterful tale of guilt and redemption, 21 Grams, in which Sean Penn, NaomiWatts and Benicio Del Toro vied to out-act eachother. (Local paper Ciak,which polled Italian critics on a daily basis, had Tsai Ming Liang's GoodbyeDragon Inn in the lead until the screening of the Bellocchiosteamroller.)

But the realrevelation of the competition, and of the festival as a whole, was The Return, a film by a first timeRussian director, Andrey Zvyagintsev,which had already caused a pre-fest ruckus when Venice snaffled it from under the nose of Locarno. Zvyagintsev, a39-year-old former actor, strips cinema down to its most basic element in thisstory of an absentee father who returns home to take his two sons on a fishingexpedition. Simply told, the film draws authority from the utterly convincingperformances of the three leads and from the way it descends into a world ofprimordial forces without ever sacrificing its dramatic edge. The jury,presided by veteran Italian director Mario Monicelli,did the right thing.

Otherhighlights included Last Life In The Universe by talented Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Shot in painterlystyle by Wong Kar Wai regularChris Doyle, this is a film about the friendship between two lonely, misunderstoodpeople. It manages to say very little, but does so in a very compelling way.Japanese star Asano Tadanobu's performance as a librarian with obsessive-compulsivedisorder earned him the Upstream section's Best Actorprize. Another treat in Upstream was TheFive Obstructions, a two-hander by Lars von Trierand Jorgen Leth, in which the wily Danish Prince of Dogme comes out into the open for the first time as aMachiavellian manipulator holding a series of cinematic hoops for one of hiscreative mentors - experimental filmmaker Leth - tojump through.

First-timedirector Michael Schorr's Schultze Gets The Blues - which picked up theUpstream Jury Grand Prix - was a charmingly quirky tale of a retired Germanminer's passion for the zydeco music of Louisiana.

The out ofcompetition roster was much stronger than last year. Standout was the Coen brothers' glittering alimony satire, Intolerable Cruelty, which featuredGeorge Clooney in one of his most enjoyable roles to date, sparring against astatuesque Catherine Zeta-Jones. It had had been announced as anout-of-competition part work but actually showed complete with the threemissing scenes.

Though itteetered on the brink of sentimentality, Francois Dupeyron'sMonsieur IbrahimEt Les Fleurs Du Coran was reined in by ahard-edged script and a fine, underplayed performance from Omar Sharif as a Parisian Arab shopkeeper who befriends a youngJewish boy.

Bernardo Bertolucci's TheDreamers divided critics. The film's main flaw was its failure to meld theoutside story - Paris' 1968 Spring of revolt - with the inside story of a menage a troisinvolving a precociously sophisticated French brother and sister and theAmerican innocent they tempt into their apartment. But it saved itself with agreat sixties rock soundtrack and a few killer scenes that reminded us that thedirector of The Conformist still hasplenty of lead in his pencil.

Woody Allen's Anything Else fulfilled its opening filmfunction; but although it had some good one-liners, this Cristina Ricci - JasonBiggs vehicle showed definite signs of tiredness. And the critics were mostly underwhelmed by The HumanStain, an adaptation of Philip Roth's novel about racial crossing and PChypocrisy in modern America. Though there was nothing offensive in theperformances of Kidman or Hopkins, the loss of Roth's cynical narratorial drawl pushed this Miramax autumn Oscarcontender too far into the arms of melodrama.

That the festival had come up with adiverse, rounded and high quality field must have been a comfort to theprogrammers, who did much more than pick up Cannes' cast-offs.

However, whether the festival haddone its best by all the films was also a source of running debate. Manyscreenings were dogged by problems with sound - Michael Winterbottom'sCode 46 was interrupted for half anhour by technical hiccoughs - and dot-matrix sub-titles often disappeared orran out of synch.

Others complained that thescheduling left something to be desired, it gave critics few opportunities tosee every film before its associated press conference. ImSang Soo's AGood Lawyer's Wife, for instance had its press screening at midnight and its gala at 10:30pm. Several buyers complained that they hadto choose between eating lunch or screening films.

The Venice Screenings market and thesales booths (this year moved away from the cinema gardens to the ground floorof the Excelsior hotel) were both quiet. One seller remarked "I had twovisitors today, and one of them was looking for the Poles." A possible co-venturewith Mifed and Cinecitta ison the cards and may add some oomph to the festival's industry ambitions, butwhether this is what buyers and sellers need or want is more moot. Many buyersdeserted Venice by the second Wednesday in order totravel to Toronto and, unlike last year, not a single US deal was completed on the Lido, although Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein looked verymuch like a man chasing Kitano's most commercial effort to date.

Had the Bellocchiofilm won, it would have howled missed opportunity. asthe top local film it came close to winning an "A-list" festival without asales company in place. The film is to be released in Italy through RAI affiliate 01 Distribuzione, but it is by no means certain that Raitrade will win a sales mandate. The film's producerSergio Pelone of Albatrosfilm,who himself sold the picture to Ocean Films of France, said he was looking fora worldwide deal whether this is from a sales agent or a global distributor.

The Return's seller RaissaFomina of Intercinema Art Agency, was one of the few leading names to havebooked space at the Venice Screenings, but the film's gathering momentum meanther fifth screening was largely irrelevant. She was able to hoard offers from Venice and will be able to make the buyerscompete this week in Toronto. Even before the prizes were announced,she had been able to lift her asking prices significantly.

On the evidence of this year, Venice remains a classy springboard forlaunching films to the European, and particularly Italian, territories, but asa market it works best as a cultivated curtain raiser to the more business-likeToronto.