US film Nomadland has won the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival, the first such event held with live audiences since the Covid-19 outbreak.

The film, by Chinese-born Chloé Zhao, stars Frances McDormand as a widow who lives as a nomad after the 2008 crisis.

Mexican director Michel Franco’s thriller New Order and historic drama Wife of a Spy by Japan’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa both won Silver Lions.

Those watching the films in Venice’s cinemas had to wear masks.

About half of the seats at the venues on the Lido waterfront were left empty, and few celebrities made the trip to the world’s oldest film festival.

Australian actress Cate Blanchett, who headed the jury at the 77th edition of the festival, said the winner had been chosen after “healthy and robust” deliberations by the jury members.

“Good discussion is good discussion with a mask or not,” she said.

Zhao, who is the first woman to win the festival’s top award in 10 years, and McDormand were speaking via Zoom from California.

“Thank you so much for letting us come to your festival in this weird, weird, weird world and way,” McDormand said.

The festival’s Grand Jury prize went to Franco’s film, while Kurosawa was named the best director. They were jointly given the Silver Lions.

Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky was given the Special Jury prize for Dear Comrades!, a film about the massacre of protesters in the USSR in 1962.

Britain’s Vanessa Kirby won the best actress award, while the best actor prize went to Italy’s Pierfrancesco Favino.

Last year, Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, won the festival’s top prize.

The annual gathering in the Italian city is one of the “big three” film festivals, alongside Cannes and Berlin.

The Berlin festival took place as scheduled from 20 February to 1 March.

But organisers of the Cannes festival – which had been due in May – were forced to postpone the event due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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