VALLETTA, Malta -- There’s a certain advantage to holding an awards ceremony in a different city every year: with the practical and cultural conditions of the event different each time, tradition doesn’t quite congeal into formula. This was my first trip to the European Film Awards, but this year’s Malta-set edition of the continent’s translation of the Oscars had details to surprise even seasoned attendees, whether it was the rowdy Maltese house band – a Gogol Bordello-type collective whose lead singer bore a striking resemblance to Captain Haddock – jamming on stage at regular intervals, or the venue itself, a cavernous former hospital at the sea’s edge, its dense stone walls roughened with several centuries’ worth of harder use than a mere red-carpet shindig.

If the surroundings rather humbled the awards themselves, then, that seemed appropriate in an intelligent, enjoyable ceremony that nonetheless seemed torn between honoring European film culture and reading its last rites – leaving a solemn aftertaste that coincidentally complemented a top-category sweep for Michael Haneke’s stern mortality study “Amour.”

Interspersing the trophy presentations was a serious of clip reels in which assorted European film luminaries, from Julie Delpy to Fatih Akin to Haneke himself, paid tribute to their rich cinematic history while ominously expressing their concerns over the industry’s survival in the face of economic restrictions and cultural shifts. (Istvan Szabo at least brightly prophesied that European cinema is equipped to weather the storm – “Our stories have always been about losers,” he said, which, oddly, was one of the evening’s more cheerful soundbites.) An address by the Maltese minister of culture, underlining his own country’s excitement at hosting the awards despite their minimal local film industry, was a polite reminder that European cinema isn’t a wholly democratic beast.

The underlying message of the evening, then, was perhaps one of guarded celebration: to see, love and reward the best in European film now, since we may not have it this good again. (Certainly, the lavish post-ceremony dinner and party, filling an impressive medieval cellar so vast you could scarcely see from one end to the other, had no interest in austerity: the European Film Academy feels their art deserves a grande bouffe of sorts, and why not?)

It’s fitting, though, that the night’s big winner, “Amour” is a model of old-school arthouse classicism, a European film that could have been made, admired and garlanded in any era. It’d be a daring choice for the American Academy, but for these awards, it’s effectively down-the-line bait; its sweep was as predictable as it was deserved. Still, for the industry pros that make up the EFA’s 2700-strong membership, there’s arguably comfort in lauding a work of timeless formal simplicity from an old pro (indeed, three old pros, counting octogenarian acting victors Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) at a time when European film stands on unstable ground.  

Traditional storytelling, in fact, ruled the entire list of EFA honorees, from “The Hunt” – a surprisingly old-fashioned allegorical melodrama from onetime Dogme firebrand Thomas Vinterberg, and the one film to wrestle a major prize from “Amour” – to Dutch Oscar submission “Kauwboy,” an affecting slice of family-friendly realism that nods to Ken Loach in more ways that just its “Kes”-lite narrative. That “Kauwboy” helmer Boudewijn Koole won the Discovery Award for debut directors suggests the EFA voters value classicism even when looking to the future.

Many of the night’s speeches, moreover, underlined the night’s reflective theme, as venerable inspirations were variously honored: Lifetime Achievement Award winner Bernardo Bertolucci may have been the evening’s resident old master, but that didn’t stop him dedication a chunk of his eloquent acceptance speech to Ingmar Bergman, like an aged student still in thrall to his teacher. Another honorary award recipient, Helen Mirren, got the night’s biggest laugh when she thanked the EFA for “recognizing that I am a fucking whore,” but that was a segue into a tribute to the European screen goddesses of the 1960s that made her want to act, led by “the original fucking whore,” Jeanne Moreau.

Eyebrows were raised when Leos Carax’s wild, unsettling surrealist funhouse “Holy Motors” failed to show up on even the EFA’s longlist: perhaps it will do so next year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this kind of flying-blind esoterica isn’t what the voters feel like elevating right now. The players in the European Film Awards may be very different to those in the Oscar race, but the rules of the game aren’t always dissimilar.

Imperfect they may be, but we should be grateful for these awards, not least because they recognize that European arthouse cinema – generally shoved into a single ghetto in awards ceremonies across the pond – has its own mainstream and alternative divisions. And if it’s the former division that obviously dominates, there’s a lot to be said for a film as uncompromising and sparsely beautiful as “Amour” emerging as the equivalent of a Hollywood prestige blockbuster.

There’s also a lot to be said for all this happening in a place as lovely and unexpected as Malta, which I’ve spent a happy weekend exploring, and which wears its own European heritage treasures with becoming modesty – including some jaw-dropping Caravaggios, which Haneke himself took some time to marvel at yesterday morning. Now there’s a meeting of artists that won’t happen on Oscar weekend.