VENICE, Italy — The Italian film "Sacro GRA," a documentary about life along the highway that circles Rome by director Gianfranco Rosi, won the Golden Lion for best film at the 70th edition of the Venice Film Festival on Saturday.

Rosi called the award a breakthrough for documentaries, which were included this year for the first time in the main competition.

"I didn't expect to win such an important prize with a documentary," Rosi said. "It was truly an act of courage, a barrier has been broken. Now finally documentaries are being seen alongside fiction, therefore documentary is cinema."

Rosi , who spent two years in a minivan circling the ring road filming conversations with such diverse subjects as a count, a paramedic and a botanist tending the highway's palm trees, dedicated the prize to the characters in the film "who allowed me to enter in their lives. Some of them became involuntary protagonists, without knowing it."

It was the first time an Italian film has won the top prize at Venice in 15 years, when Gianni Amelio won for "The Way We Laughed" in 1998.

"Sacro GRA" won a standing ovation during its official world premiere, but mixed international reviews.

"Without trying to make a big point or push a political agenda, he taps into the everyday life of society's fringe dwellers in a series of sketches," the Hollywood Reporter wrote, saying the film "holds its own" in competition, while Variety said Rosi's "idea remains more absorbing than the final product. Docu fests await."

The Silver Lion for best director went to Alexandros Avranas of Greece for "Miss Violence," a disturbing look at sexual violence and abuse perpetrated by a grandfather, played by Greek actor Themis Panou, who won the best actor prize.

Best actress went to Italian actress Elena Cotta, who didn't utter a word in director Emma Dante's "A Street in Palermo," about two women blocked in a standoff when their cars meet on a narrow street, but managed to use facial expressions to portray intense emotions throughout the film. Cotta dedicated the award to her husband, with whom she recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

Tye Sheridan, 16, won the best young actor award for his role opposite Nicolas Cage in David Gordon Green's "Joe" as a boy who looks to Joe, an ex-con played by Cage, for guidance as he struggles with an abusive and drunkard father. Sheridan has appeared previously in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" and Jeff Nichols' "Mud."

The Grand Jury Prize went to Tsai Ming-liang's "Stray Dogs," about a father and two children living on the margins of modern-day Taipei. The director, who won the Golden Lion in 1994 for "Vive L'amour," thanked the Venice audiences "that slowed their pace to watch my movie."

"Philomena" won best screenplay for Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. The film by Stephen Frears stars Judi Dench in the real-life role of an Irish woman who was forced by nuns to give up her son for adoption, and keeps it secret for nearly 50 years until she sets off on an unlikely journey to the U.S. with a jaded journalist to search for her son.

The Special Jury Prize went to German director Philip Groening's "The Police Officer's Wife," about violence between husband and wife and a mother's efforts to protect their child's innocence.

Oscar-winning director Bernardo Bertolucci headed the nine-member jury that screened 20 movies in competition, and read out the winners from a wheelchair on stage. He told reporters at the start of the festival that he hoped to be "surprised" by the winners.

___

Colleen Barry reported from Milan.

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