The 61st edition of the Venice film festival proved to be anunmitigated fiasco from the organisational point of view, with films running upto two hours late and Al Pacino unable to get a seat at the official screeningof The Merchant of Venice (starring Al Pacino).

The final straw came when theprojectionist swapped reels during the press screening of the Wong KarWai-Soderbergh- Antonioni collaboration Eros and subjected the audience to seven minutes of anentirely different film featuring Canadian gay strippers (at least it stuck tothe theme).

It was difficult not to let these problems affectone's qualitative judgement of the festival; but even the most generouslyobjective of critics agreed that this was only an average year in terms of filmquality. Granted, the best competition entries, Amenabar's The SeaWithin and Mike Leigh's VeraDrake, were very good.

Golden Lion winner Vera Drake was a not so much a pro-abortion film as a harrowing study of thecrushing of a good woman by society and its law enforcers; there was never anydoubt, even before the rest of the competition entries screened, that ImeldaStaunton would walk away with the prize for best actress.

Amenabar's Grand Jury Prize winner, a true-story studyof a quadriplegic man fighting doggedly for the right to die, was all the moremoving because of its refusal to embrace sentimentality. It featured a standoutperformance by Javier Bardem, who picked up the Coppa Volpi prize for bestactor.

Elsewhere in competition, Kim Ki-Duk's last-minuteentry 3-Iron - which the Koreandirector only finished shooting in July - turned out to be an audiencefavourite, with its original and visually ravishing take on the old story oftwo misfits in love. Awarded the best director prize, this arthouse-feelgoodproduct could turn out to be Kim's most commercial film to date.

Jonathan Glazer's dark, supernaturally-tingedreincarnation yarn Birth was a realcoming of age for the director of Sexy Beast - though it split critics, with some findingthe film too mannered, and Nicole Kidman's performance too much a fragileand tear-stained reprise of most of her other roles.

Francois Ozon's relationship drama 5x2 also divided the pundits, with some seeing it as atelling, Bergman-esque exploration of sexual politics, others as curiouslylacking in bite. But it was good to see Italian actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschifinally being recognised for the major talent that she is.

On the directorial front, the home side put up a poor show;Michele Placido's limp end-of-love drama Wherever You Are was universally derided, while Gianni Amelio'slong-awaited The House Keys wasan honest but flawed film about disability and guilt that was lauded - inpublic, at least - only by the staunchly loyal Italian critics.

What was really lacking this year was a breakout buzz titlefrom one of the smaller sections, like last year's Lost in Translation, which screened in the alternative Upstream section- renamed Horizons this year, and no doubt up for another name-changenext time round.

The standout film in Horizons was probably Finnish directorPirjo Honakasalo's Chechen-themed anti-war documentary The Three Roomsof Melancholy, though it was Ilan DuranCohen's Les Petits Fils- an interesting but flawed DV generational drama with a dirtydocu-realist look - that picked up the main Horizons prize.

In Critics Week, Dylan Kidd's P.S. I Love You confirmed the US indie director's bravura, and proved that LauraLinney can act most of her better-paid female colleagues out of the water; butthis mid-life-crisis love story lacked the sheer wow factor of Kidd'sdebut, Roger Dodger.

It was the Israeli film Ya Lakachta Lecha Isha (To Take aWife) - an intense and harrowingchamber drama co-directed by its star, Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz (theprostitute mother in Or), withher brother Shlomi - that really got critics and distributors talking.Another minor Venice revelation was the inventive and atmospheric Danish puppetmovie Strings, which has alreadyclinched distribution deals in a raft of territories.