A hard-hitting Romanian movie set toward the end of the Communist era won the Cannes Film Festival's top honor on Sunday, May 27.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days directed by Cristian Mungiu, was the critics' favorite to win the Palme d'Or in the buildup to a glittering red-carpet ceremony that ended the 12-day movie marathon on the French Riviera.
The film tells the grim story of young student friends Otilia and Gabita, who are ruthlessly exploited when one seeks an illegal abortion.
But despite being set in the pitiless and colorless landscape of socialist Romania, the story underlines the lengths to which friends go to save each other.
Mungiu welcomed the international attention the award would bring to his and other small-scale productions.
"I ... hope that this award that I am getting tonight is going to be good news for small filmmakers from small countries because it looks like you don't necessarily need a big budget and a lot of stars," he said.
4 Months was one of 22 films in competition, and beat a series of highly acclaimed pictures for the top prize as the world's biggest film festival celebrated its 60th birthday.
They included Alexandra by Russian art-house director Alexander Sokurov, and three U.S. entries -- No Country For Old Men by the Coen Brothers, Zodiac by David Fincher and Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park.
Critics praised the Cannes selectors for a competition lineup they said was one of the strongest in recent years. There were few outright duds, and, while many stories were dark, if not depressing, they also portrayed great humanity.
The nine-member jury awarded the runner-up Grand Prix prize to The Mourning Forest, a lyrical Japanese movie about grief directed by Naomi Kawase.
Best director was Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly based on the true story of French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a stroke and was paralyzed yet managed to write a book using one eyelid to communicate.
"I didn't see it as depressing," Schnabel told a news conference. "I think Jean-Dominique Bauby was saying to all of us: 'I was dead when I had my body. I was blind. It took the harsh light of disaster to show me my true nature.'"
The prize for best screenplay was awarded to German-Turkish director and writer Fatih Akin for The Edge of Heaven, a cross-border story of love and reconciliation.
Best actor was Konstantin Lavronenko, who played the male lead in Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Banishmentm, another gloomy film that features an abortion.
Best actress was Jeon Do-yeon for South Korean competition entry Secret Sunshine, an emotional drama about a woman overwhelmed by loss.
The Camera d'Or for first film went to Jellyfish, an Israeli-French production by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen.
As ever, the limelight was frequently stolen by films and stars outside the main competition. Angelina Jolie was praised for her role in A Mighty Heart, about the kidnapping and beheading of reporter Daniel Pearl by Islamic militants, and Michael Moore, winner of the Palme d'Or in 2004, brought his provocative Sicko documentary to town.
George Clooney and Brad Pitt were on the red carpet to promote blockbuster Ocean's 13, Irish rockers U2 performed for a large crowd while Kylie Minogue, Elton John, Sharon Stone and Naomi Campbell worked the non-stop party circuit.