VENICE (AFP) - The race for the Golden Lion in Venice took a dark turn on Sunday with stories of war and genocide including an ambitious tale that has drawn death threats for German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin.
The mass murder of Armenians by the Ottomans in 1915 is the theme of Akin's latest film "The Cut" - a hugely controversial subject particularly in Turkey and one that has sparked a violent reaction from extremist groups.
"I had seven or eight years to prepare myself for the reaction to the film, it's something I'm not surprised by. For art it's worth to die," he told journalists in English in Venice, adding that he tries "not to take it too seriously".
In the film an Armenian blacksmith (played by French actor Tahar Rahim) is separated from his wife and two young children in what is present-day Turkey when the Ottomans join the First World War, and he is called up for military service.
When bandits attack his group of conscripts, the blacksmith is the only survivor. One of the aggressors stabs him in the neck rather than slitting his throat, leaving him alive but mute, with his vocal chords severed.
As the years pass he becomes obsessed with finding his daughters and sets off on a quest which sees him trek through Syria, Lebanon and America.
The brutal slaughter of Armenians and the flight of survivors to far-flung lands are evoked in gut-wrenching scenes, only slightly let down by a drop-off in emotional intensity in the film's second half.
The film's co-writer Mardik Martin, who worked with Martin Scorsese on such classics as "Raging Bull" and "Mean Streets", told Venice he'd come out of retirement for "The Cut" because it tackled a historical event barely addressed in cinema.
"Hitler said 'Why not kill Jews? The Armenians were annihilated in the First World War and nobody said anything about it'," the 77-year-old said.
"Which just goes to show, if you don't say anything about genocide, we don't learn anything," said Martin, who was raised in Baghdad in an Armenian family.
Up against "The Cut" for Venice's top prize is "Far From Men", a tale of honour and friendship set at the start of the Algerian war of independence.
The film, inspired by Albert Camus' short story "The Guest", stars Viggo Mortensen of "Lord of the Rings" fame as an Algerian-born, French-speaking schoolteacher who puts his own safety at risk to defend and protect an Arab farmer accused of murder.
Set in 1954, the men embark on a journey fraught with danger through the inhospitable Atlas Mountains - captured in some breathtaking widescreen shots - as freedom fighters and the French army fight in the rocky outcrops.
French director David Oelhoffen's movie is less a depiction of the bloody uprising than an exploration of existential questions posed by Camus, played out on a hostile and isolated terrain far from the reaches of the law.
"What I love is that this movie is not an ideological take on the historical period, place or people. It's subversive because it does not take sides," Viggo told journalists, before heading off to sign autographs for screaming fans.
The actor, who learnt Arabic for the movie, said he had travelled to Algeria to prepare for the part and "read everything Camus ever wrote", adding that he was particularly inspired by one of the Nobel Prize-winning author's phrases in particular.
"The phrase is: 'I'm not cut out for politics, because I am incapable of desiring or accepting the death of my adversary', and I thought that captured perfectly my character's attitude and the film's soul," he said.