ROME -- Unheralded Tir, Alberto Fasulo's documentary about a Bosnian man who becomes a truck driver after failing to find work as a teacher, on Saturday became the first Italian film to win the Rome Film Festival's top prize, while Matthew McConaughey and Scarlett Johansson took home the festival's two main acting prizes.
Seventh Code, a thriller from Japan's Kiyoshi Kurosawa, earned Kurosawa the best director honor and Koichi Takahashi the prize for best technical contribution.
The entire cast of Acrid (Gass), directed by Iran's Kiarash Asadizadeh, was honored with the prize for best emerging actor or actress and Quod Erat Demonstrandum from Romania's Andrei Gruzsniczk won the jury prize.
The award means Tir is the second Italian documentary to win the main award at a major Italian festival in ten weeks, following Gianfranco Rosi's Sacro GRA, which similarly surprised observers when it won the top prize at the venerable Venice Film Festival in September. Tir, a Croatia co-production, had not been among the films considered likely to win the festival's top Golden Marcus Aurelius honor.
Fasulo earned the night's biggest applause as he loped to the stage to receive his award and meet jury president James Gray, who declared that despite animated discussions about the award giving the honor to Tir was "an easy choice."
The best actor prize going to McConaughey for his work in Jean-Marc Valle's Dallas Buyers Club was not a surprise after the film -- and McConaughey's performance -- wowed moviegoers in Rome. But Johansson's award is more unusual, if only because she is only heard, not seen, in Spike Jonze's attention grabbing Her, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with his computer operating system (Johansson gives the operating system its voice).
Dallas Buyers Club joined Seventh Code as the only competition films to be honored twice, when it won the audience award to go along with McConaughey's acting honor.
Among other prizes Saturday, the award for best screenplay went to I Am Not Him (Ben o degilim) from Turkey's Tayfun Pirselimoglu while Blue Sky Bones from Cui Jian won a special mention. Scott Cooper won the prize for best first or second film for his star-studded revenge drama Out of the Furnace.
In other sections, Aliona Polunina won the CinemaXXI section for innovations in cinema with Nepal Forever, while Dal profondo from Valentina Pedicini won the award for best Italian documentary.
Saturday's results, with a mix of surprises and favorites, along with honors to A-List Hollywood talent and productions is a welcome result for the festival, which a year ago saw its prize ceremony marred by hisses and boos. Attendance was also up, with an estimated 20 percent more tickets sold compared to 2012, with media coverage, and overall festival attendance also up. Officials said The Business Street, the festival's market event, attracted participants from nearly 50 countries, with the number of badge holders up 10 percent compared to a year ago, including a 15-percent increase in the number of buyers on hand.
In a press conference earlier in the day, second-year artistic director Marco Mueller made the event's hybrid structure as part festival, part cinema party, official, coining the term "festaval" -- a mix between the Italian words for "festival" and "party."
Mueller also said the dates for the 2014 edition of the festival would be pushed back by about a week to avoid a conflict with the American Film Market, which concluded this year on Nov. 13, pushing The Business Street to the tail end of the festival. A mid-November start in Rome, however, would encroach even further with the 31-year-old Turin Film Festival, which gets underway Nov. 22. Mueller, stoked a controversy with Turin immediately upon arriving in Rome last year when he moved the festival's dates from October to November, said a compromise would be worked out with Turin.
The festival officially concludes Sunday, with a slate of out-of-competition films highlighted by Benny Chan's thriller The White Storm (Sou duk / saodu), the official closing film.
Ornella Sgroi contributed to this report.