VENICE - "I have a feeling Bertolucci's going to be a bit spikier than that," a colleague said to me yesterday, after I ventured my not-at-all confident prediction that Hayao Miyazaki's romantic animated biopic "The Wind Rises" would win the Golden Lion. To some extent, actually, we agreed. This year's Bertolucci-led jury didn't exactly seem likely to hand the top prize to the comfortingly middlebrow "Philomena," however much the crowds at Venice wanted them to: with other jurors including Andrea Arnold, Pablo Larrain and Carrie Fisher, it was hard to tell just what they'd agree on, but the odds were firmly stacked against it being safe.

Well, Bertolucci was a bit spikier than that, all right.

Tonight's Venice awards ceremony was the most surprising -- and the most contentious -- I've seen in the time I've been tracking film festivals. As I watched it play out in a press room filled mostly with hot-tempered Italian journalists, one announcement after another met with lusty booing, and Bertolucci proceeded to heap glittering prizes upon some of the most critically unpopular films of the festival. So hostile was the room by the time the Golden Lion was announced that my hopes were raised for Bertolucci to aggravate onlookers even further by tapping Jonathan Glazer's profoundly polarizing "Under the Skin" for the honor. It wasn't to be; the jury aggravated them instead by picking one of the least talked-about films in Competition.

You'd have expected the crowd to be reasonably in favor of an Italian film taking Venice's top award: it hasn't happened since Gianni Amelio's "The Way We Laughed" in 1998. (Amelio, as it happens, was also in Competition this year, though he left empty-handed.) But a puzzled collective murmur, interspersed with some isolated, half-hearted claps, greeted the news that this year's Golden Lion winner is Gianfranco Rosi's "Sacro GRA," a documentary about life at the edges of the circular Roman highway of the title. In hindsight, we should have seen an Italian win coming, what with Bertolucci as jury prez, and the festival celebrating its 70th anniversary, but you still probably wouldn't have bet on it being this.

First screened on Thursday, by which time many journalists had already packed their bags for Toronto, the film met with a muted if not impolite critical response: non-Italians, in fact, seemed more responsive to what was widely labelled a curio, though the consensus was that the film was unavoidably a niche proposition, unlikely to set international art houses alight.

Catching up with it at its post-ceremony screening, I was more taken with it than most: a diffuse spaghetti-junction of lives in the margins, glowingly shot in a tenderly observational mode, it struck me as a street-level counterpart to the year's other Roman social wallow, Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty." The premise suggests humorless vérité, but this is funny, poetic stuff; it never quite organizes its strands into something approaching momentum, but it's never dull either. I can see why Bertolucci and his colleagues felt they were making an exciting choice here, even if the film's crossover appeal is unavoidably limited.

"It could have been worse," the aggrieved Swedish journalist next to me muttered. I had already gathered just how much worse, from his perspective, it could have been by the volume of his jeers when Bertolucci, a tellingly miscievous smile on his face, announced the first award of the Competition: the Special Jury Prize for German formaslist Phillip Groning's "The Police Officer's Wife," a film that met with vicious catcalls at its press screening early in the festival, and did so again tonight. An unremittingly downbeat, three-hour study of a respectable middle-class family torn asunder by brutal domestic violence, it didn't attract criticism for its hope-free content as much as its highly affected construction: the film is broken into 59 "chapters," ranging in length from a few seconds to 10 minutes, each one bracketed with a slow fade to/from black, accompanied by cards stating "Beginning of Chapter X" and "End of Chapter X."

It's a maddening, deliberately distancing ploy that does little to enhance or connect the individual scenes -- many of which are quite stunning in their intimate horror, making it all the more frustrating that Groning has decided to lock his very fine actors into such a self-admiring directorial conceit. Yet I wasn't as mad at "The Police Officer's Wife" as some were: its structure was fundamentally misguided but almost fascinatingly perverse, and it struck me as just the kind of commendably impossible experiment that Special Jury Prizes should probably be reserved for, particularly in a Competition lineup this short on great or even fully realized films.

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.