"Stray Dogs."
"Stray Dogs."

When Bernardo Bertolucci announced on Saturday that the first-ever winner of Venice’' Grand Jury Prize was Tsai Ming Liang's "Stray Dogs," my heart sank. Not because Tsai's tenth feature (and possibly his last) doesn’t deserve major prizes – oh, it does - but because this meant that something else had won the festival's top award, the Golden Lion. And by a process of elimination, that "something else" seemed likely to be either Hayao Miyazaki’s naggingly evasive "The Wind Rises" or Jonathan Glazer’s beautiful pricktease "Under the Skin" (reviewed at Telluride and discussed further in Shane Danielsen's report). "Stray Dogs" losing out on gold was bad enough – but to be edged out by a mediocre rival would have crossed a line from injustice to disgrace.

In the end, Bertolucci and his seven fellow jurors on stage – Carrie Fisher was mysteriously absent – froze out Miyazaki and Glazer altogether, the pair pointedly joining Xavier Dolan ("Tom at the Farm"), Errol Morris ("The Unknown Known") and Philippe Garrel ("Jealousy") in the salon of the conspicuously refusé.

READ MORE: At 70, the Venice Film Festival Is Good, But No Longer One of the Greats

As has been widely reported elsewhere already this weekend, the jurors did see fit to honor Alexandros Avranas' "Miss Violence" (Best Actor, Best Director), Stephen Frears' "Philomena" (Screenplay), Emma Dante's "A Street in Palermo" (Actress), and Philipp Groning's "The Police Officer's Wife (Special Jury Prize)…and even David Gordon Green's very tepidly-received "Joe," with 16-year-old star Tye Sheridan picking up -- to absolutely no one's surprise -- the Marcello Mastroianni Award for the best young, emerging performer.

Tsai Ming Liang's "Stray Dogs" has left the Lido without the prize it most emphatically deserved.

And if "Stray Dogs" had to lose, at least it lost to a strong rival, albeit one seldom mentioned as a serious contender by prediction junkies such as myself: Gianfranco Rosi's elegantly observed "Holy GRA" ("Sacro Gra"), the first documentary to land the top prize in the 81-year history of the world’s oldest film festival. The convention that non-fiction and fiction don’t contend against each other in the top festivals is, needless to say, an archaic absurdity. And form-students will note that when such "anomalies" do crop up -- Jacques Cousteau won Cannes in 1956, Michael Moore ditto 48 years later -- they have a pretty strong strike-rate.

But while we're all delighted that more quality documentaries will, as a result of tonight, contend for golden prizes, that must be weighed against the simple fact that Tsai Ming Liang's "Stray Dogs" has left the Lido without the prize it most emphatically deserved. Tsai’s already got one Leone d’Oro on his sideboard at home, of course (he shared top honors in 1994 for his second feature, "Vive l'Amour.") And there was no doubting the genuine delight he displayed when he beamingly picked up his trophy, then gave way to tears during his acceptance speech -- perhaps a factor of his recently-announced "retirement" from features (hopeful sign: when asked about this in a press conference, his response was a guilty little giggle.)

There's some irony, however, in the fact that the trophy itself was instituted pretty directly as a result of last year’s debacle, when on an evening unforgettable for its clusterfuck of incompetence and slapstick mishap, Michael Mann's jury gave the picture they adored (Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master") the runner-up prize and the Golden Lion, as a kind of afterthought, to something else entirely (Kim Ki-duk’s "Pietà"). 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but 12 moons later there can be no doubt that in terms of its subsequent reception by audiences, critics and festival programmers, the reputation of "The Master" now far outstrips that of its Korean rival (though it's not without naysayers, including the author of this article.)

Next: Will "Stray Dogs" stand the test of time?