VENICE - Hollywood outsider Mickey Rourke capped his big screen comeback on Saturday when "The Wrestler," in which he plays a lonely, washed out fighter, won the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice festival.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the moving tale poignantly echoes Rourke's own troubled life in and out of the boxing ring and film studio, and critics are tipping the star for an Oscar nomination early next year.
"Darren Aronofsky came here a couple of years ago and fell on his ass," Rourke told the packed Sala Grande theatre where the awards were given out. He was referring to the director's critical flop "The Fountain" which premiered in Venice in 2006.
"I am glad he had the balls to come back. I don't think he wanted to come. I said, 'You've got to come'."
German director Wim Wenders, president of the seven-member jury, added: "This is for a film with a truly heartbreaking performance in the very sense of the word, and if I say heartbreaking, you know I am talking about Mickey Rourke."
Wenders suggested Rourke, who looked disheveled with his collar open, tie undone and cigar in hand, could have also won the best actor prize in Venice, but the festival does not allow a Golden Lion winner to pick up best acting awards too.
"The Wrestler," for which Rourke said he was not paid, was one of 21 films in the main competition lineup, and the awards ceremony wound up 11 hectic days of screenings, interviews, press conferences and red carpet glamour.
Rourke was accompanied on Saturday by his ageing dog, which posed for photographers alongside the star.
"I brought my dog because my dog is very old, she is 16 and she is not going to be around for long so I want to spend every moment with her."
"THE BEST EVER"
The 51-year-old star of 1980s hits "9-1/2 Weeks" and "Angel Heart" told Reuters this week that "The Wrestler" was "the best ... movie I've ever made."
Asked at a post-awards press conference what he thought about people who came back from the brink, Rourke replied: "Well I had a lot of time, I was out of work for about 15 years so I had a lot of time to think about things."
Aronofsky added: "It shows how simple a movie can be, when you have someone who is honest in front of the lens."
The Silver Lion for best director was won by Russia's Alexei German Jr. for "Paper Soldier," set on the windswept steppes of Kazakhstan and centering on the 1960s Soviet space program.
The best actor award went to Italy's Silvio Orlando for his role in "Il Papa di Giovanna" (Giovanna's Father), the story of an overprotective father and his mentally deranged daughter.
The best actress prize was won by France's Dominique Blanc in "L'Autre" (The Other One), a haunting tale of a woman who becomes dangerously obsessed with a young ex-boyfriend.
"Teza," by Ethiopian director Haile Gerima, picked up two prizes -- the special jury award and best screenplay.
The story chronicles the life of an Ethiopian intellectual who flees his country during the Marxist "red terror" in the 1980s, only to be attacked in Germany by racist youths.
U.S. actress Jennifer Lawrence was named best emerging actress for her role in "The Burning Plain," in which she appears alongside Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron.
Venice was criticized this year for a main competition lineup that some said was generally weak, but a trio of popular U.S. productions towards the end helped lift spirits.
As well as "The Wrestler," "The Hurt Locker" by director Kathryn Bigelow impressed critics with its portrayal of the perils faced by a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, while actress Anne Hathaway generated awards buzz in "Rachel Getting Married."