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'Life' wins Canada's People's Choice award

TORONTO -- The public and the critics were far apart in choosing their favorites at this year's Toronto Film Festival - selecting titles that could almost be viewed as opposites.

"Life is Beautiful," the gentle, powerful tragicomedy by Italy's Roberto Benigni, won the Air Canada People's Choice Award, which is determined by a weighted ballot of moviegoers on their way out of the screenings. Benigni stars as a clown who uses humor, his only weapon, to try to save his son from death in a concentration camp. His wife, Nicoletta Braschi, co-stars as the clown's wife and boy's mother.

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"Happiness," the much-discussed portrait of loneliness, perversion and desperation by Todd Solondz, won the Metro Media Award, voted on by some 740 members of the international press corps that covered the festival. The film follows a loosely related group of characters who desperately try to maintain acceptable facades while pursuing private depravities.

At Cannes in May, "Life is Beautiful" won the jury prize, and "Happiness" won the critics' prize.

The separate Rothman's World International Critics Award, decided by a jury of members of the International Film Critics' Association (FIRPRESCI), was shared by "West Beirut," by Ziad Doueiri of Lebanon and France, and "Praise," by John Curran of Australia. The first film follows two Muslim friends who are students in a Catholic school in Beirut in the first days of the civil war in Lebanon. The second is about an unlikely love affair between two loners in a down-and-out hotel.

The $15,000 CityTV award for best first Canadian feature film went to Don McKellar's "Last Night," in which Earth has but a few more hours before destruction, and a group of characters decide in intensely personal ways how to spend them.

The $25,000 award for best Canadian film, co-sponsored by CityTV and the city of Toronto, went to Robert Lepage for "Nô," which follows a troupe from Montreal to the 1970 Osaka world's fair and subtly contrasts the Japanese no drama with the Quebec separatist cry of "no!"

Runners-up for the People's Choice Award were Kirk Jones' "Waking Ned Devine," an Irish comedy, and Walter Salles' "Central Station," about an odyssey in Brazil as an old woman helps a young orphan find his father.

An estimated 250,000 moviegoers attended this year's Toronto festival, which has become North America's most important, and draws international tourists. When it was founded 23 years ago, the New York and Chicago festivals were the major autumn showcases. But the Toronto and Ontario governments provided funding that allowed Toronto to develop prestige and attract tourism, eclipsing both of the U.S. cities.

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