By Mike Collett-White and Silvia Aloisi
VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - Highbrow trumped Hollywood at the Venice film festival this year, with Russian director Alexander Sokurov's demanding German-language "Faust" taking top prize and Roman Polanski and George Clooney overlooked.
Most prizes at Saturday's closing ceremony went to less-than-familiar names and faces, with the exception of rising Irish star Michael Fassbender's best actor award for "Shame."
The Silver Lion for best director was awarded to China's Shangjun Cai for his gritty "People Mountain People Sea," best actress went to Hong Kong's Deanie Ip and the jury prize went to Italian immigration drama "Terraferma."
Surprisingly overlooked was Roman Polanski's "Carnage," a comedy of manners featuring a stellar cast of Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly.
Based on a play and set in real time in a single apartment, Carnage is a stinging critique of middle class mores, but also has plenty of humor including Winslet's memorable projectile vomit scene.
Polanski was not able to travel to Venice to present the movie, given the threat of extradition to the United States where he is still wanted for sentencing in a 1977 sex crime case.
"Many feel that jury head Darren Aronofsky and his compatriot Todd Haynes, both Americans, lacked the courage to give the victory to a colleague who is not liked in the U.S." said a commentary in the La Stampa newspaper.
While Venice is not a platform for blockbusters, it has proved an effective launchpad for U.S. Oscar contenders like Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" and Aronofsky's own "Black Swan" and "The Wrestler."
Festival director Marco Mueller succeeded in attracting a string of A-listers to the red carpet this year after a low-key 2010, although all were bypassed when it came to the prizes.
Among the overlooked contenders was Clooney's political thriller "The Ides of March," which was well received and starred Clooney himself as a governor embroiled in scandal during an election race.
La Repubblica newspaper's headline said Clooney and Polanski had been "snubbed."
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," directed by Sweden's Tomas Alfredson, slipped beneath the radar despite rave reviews for its adaptation of John Le Carre's classic Cold War spy novel.
Gary Oldman shines as George Smiley and Colin Firth and John Hurt also appeared in the surprisingly digestible re-telling of a notoriously complex tale.
"Faust" is the fourth and final installment in Sokurov's series on corrupting power, and won praise for conjuring up a 19th century world of squalor, stench and chaos in which Faust and a mad-cap Mephistopheles play out their destinies.
Some viewers found the dialogue-heavy, German language picture that lasts well over two hours tough going.
"Taking highbrow to the edge of slapstick, Sokurov's idiosyncratic adaptation of ... Faust will intrigue some and turn off others," said Hollywood Reporter critic Deborah Young.
Faust is a less obvious fit in the series, which started in 1999 with "Moloch," about Adolf Hitler, and took in Vladimir Lenin in "Taurus" and Emperor Hirohito in "The Sun."
Outside the main competition, singer Madonna presented her second feature film as director, "W.E.," about a modern-day woman who becomes obsessed with Wallis Simpson and her love for King Edward VIII.
And Steven Soderbergh assembled an all-star cast for "Contagion," a story about the spread of disease and fear around the world featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Matt Damon and Winslet.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Andrew Heavens)