CANNES, France — A harrowing film about illegal abortion in Communist-era Romania beat 21 movies by well-known directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Ethan and Joel Coen, and Wong Kar-wai to win the Cannes Film Festival's top prize Sunday.
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's low-budget film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, depicts the horrors a student goes through to ensure her friend can have a secret abortion.
Mungiu, who was awarded the Palme d'Or by actress Jane Fonda, said he didn't even have enough money to shoot the film just six months ago. He hoped the win would inspire other "small filmmakers from small countries."
"You don't necessarily need a big budget and big stars to tell a story that everyone will listen to," said 39-year-old Mungiu, the first Romanian to win Cannes' top prize.
The films shown at Cannes' 60th anniversary edition ran the gamut of weighty subjects, from death and loss to abortion and aging. The winners of the awards, announced by jury president Stephen Frears (director of The Queen), reflected the darker themes.
Japanese director Naomi Kawase's Mogari No Mori (The Mourning Forest) took the festival's grand prize, the second-highest award, in a surprise. The film is about two people — a retirement home resident and a caretaker at the center — struggling to overcome the deaths of loved ones.
The prize for best director went to American Julian Schnabel for his French-language film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on a memoir by a French magazine editor who became paralyzed after a stroke and learned to write again by painstakingly blinking his eyelid.
The movie is Schnabel's third, after Basquiat and Before Night Falls.
The jury awarded a special prize to director Gus Van Sant for his impressionistic Paranoid Park, which depicts a teenage skateboarder whose life is turned upside down when he accidentally kills a security guard. Van Sant, who won the festival's top prize in 2003 for Elephant, recruited untrained actors on MySpace.com and shot the film in just a few weeks.
Two films shared the jury prize: Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's moving and humorous adaptation of her graphic novels about growing up during and after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which she co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud; and Stellet Licht (Silent Light), Carlos Reygadas' tale of forbidden love set among Mennonite farmers of northern Mexico.
Acting honors went to Russia's Konstantin Lavronenko, who played a troubled husband The Banishment, a drama about a couple whose marriage disintegrates during a stay in the countryside. The prize for best actress went to South Korea's Jeon Do-yeon, who played a widow struggling to cope with her husband's death in Secret Sunshine.
German writer and director Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, a German-Turkish cross-cultural tale of loss, mourning and forgiveness, won the prize for best screenplay.
Several high-profile movies that screened at Cannes were not in the running for prizes, including Michael Moore's Sicko, Ocean's Thirteen starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, and A Mighty Heart, featuring Angelina Jolie as the widow of slain journalist Daniel Pearl.
The Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, a bloody, darkly funny tale about a ruthless killer in Texas, was hailed by critics but snubbed by the jury. Other films up for the top prize included Tarantino's Death Proof, Wong's My Blueberry Nights, and David Fincher's Zodiac.
In a big weekend for Romania, another film from the country took honors in a secondary competition called Un Certain Regard. Director Cristian Nemescu died in a car crash last year at age 27, leaving his California Dreamin' incomplete. Jurors had initially decided not to judge the film, about U.S. soldiers in a small Romanian village, but changed their minds when they saw it.
On Saturday night, festival organizers screened the late Henry Fonda's Twelve Angry Men, then surprised his daughter, Jane Fonda, with a special lifetime achievement award at a gala dinner.
Festival President Gilles Jacob recounted Fonda's career highs and lows, including her controversial trip to North Vietnam in 1972, joking that he never thought the festival would honor someone who had been "spied on and hounded by the FBI."
The 69-year-old Fonda, visibly moved, put the focus back on her father, responding in excellent French, "For my father, his films were his way of representing justice, quality and democracy." She added her hope that one day, "the United States will again become the country that he stood for."