The Italian film "Sacro GRA" about people living along the ring road around Rome was chosen as the first documentary ever to win the Golden Lion for best film on Saturday at the 70th Venice Film Festival.
It also was the first Italian production in 15 years to win the top prize at the world's oldest film festival.
"I didn't know that it has been 15 years before an Italian won in Venice this award," director Gianfranco Rosi told Reuters as he left a news conference after the awards ceremony presided over by jury president and veteran Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci.
"The last one was won by (director Gianni) Amelio and the previous one by Bertolucci so for me it's an incredible honour. And tonight I saw the maestro and he was extremely moved when he gave me the award and this makes this even more important."
"Sacro GRA", whose name is a pun on the ring road's name which evokes the Italian for Holy Grail - delves into the lives of a dozen characters.
They include a weevil-fighting tree scientist, ambulance drivers, an eel fisherman and an intellectual down on his luck and living in a tiny one-room flat with his studious daughter.
"There is also drama in my film," Rosi said. "Reality becomes drama, makes drama from the ordinary. So there is drama. There is a narrative structure. I thought about cinema when I made this film."
Despite great differences this year among critics and audiences about the 20 films in competition, Bertolucci said he did not recall any juror opposing the award to "Sacro GRA".
"I think that all the jury felt the poetic force of Rosi's film and that's all there is to be said," Bertolucci said.
Some of the films that went away empty-handed included Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" with Scarlett Johansson as an alien in human form, the JFK assassination movie "Parkland" and the James Franco necrophilia film "Child of God".
Rosi's film was one of an unprecedented two documentaries in competition at Venice. The other was American director Errol Morris's "The Unknown Known" about Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. defence secretary during the Iraq war, which also won no prizes.
The Morris film failed to impress critics, the jury and festivalgoers alike for what was seen as its failure to ask challenging questions of the man whose response to questions about the looting of Baghdad after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 was: "Stuff happens".
Jay Weissberg, the Rome-based film critic for trade publication Variety, said Morris, who won an Oscar for his 2003 documentary about Vietnam-era U.S. defence secretary Robert S. McNamara, hadn't deserved to win.
"This is very much a disappointing film and the music so much overwhelms that it winds up being annoying rather than being engaged," he said.
He said the award to "Sacro GRA" was "a bold move by the jury to give a prize for a documentary and I think that it's indicative of the rise of documentaries in the last few years".
The Silver Lion for best director among the 20 entries in the main competition went to Greece's Alexandros Avranas for "Miss Violence", about a family where the father pimps out his children and grandchildren.
The cup for best actor was awarded to Themis Panou for his performance as the abusive father in "Miss Violence" while the best actress award went to Elena Cotta of Italy for her role in director Emma Dante's "Via Castellana Bandiera", about a stand-off between women drivers in Palermo, Sicily.
"Philomena", the Judi Dench and Steve Coogan two-hander about an elderly Irishwoman searching for the son that nuns had forced her to give up for adoption, was a festival favourite but won only a best screenplay for Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope.
Tye Sheridan, the American actor who plays a young boy from a violent background in the southern U.S. film "Joe" starring Nicolas Cage, said after winning an award for best new actor that his idol was James Dean.
Festival director Alberto Barbera had said the line-up of films in the competition emphasised a dark and violent reality, stemming in part from the global economic crisis.
"Sacro GRA" includes shots of sex workers along the ring road, but other films at Venice focused on themes such as incest, family violence, child prostitution and even necrophilia in the Franco movie adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novella.
Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang, a former Golden Lion winner, landed a Grand Jury Prize for his film "Stray Dogs" about a man and his two children living on the fringes of society in the Taiwanese capital.
Toronto, whose film festival overlaps Venice, screens more than 350 films, while Venice had 20 in competition for the Golden Lion and some 40 more in other festival tracks.
"I think that Toronto casts a very wide net and Venice has no interest and no space to compete with that," said Eric J. Lyman, correspondent in Italy for trade publication The Hollywood Reporter.
But he said the Venice award can give a boost even to big-budget productions, like Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron's space disaster drama "Gravity" starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock which kicked off the festival last week with a bang.