Italian director Gianfranco Rosi's documentary Holy GRA, which looks into everyday life off a Rome ring road, won the Golden Lion for best movie at the Venice Film Festival.
"I would never, ever have believed a documentary would win Venice Film Festival," said an emotional Rosi, who won the top prize among 20 films in competition with his tale, which peered into houses, workplaces and gardens.
The director said he had spent years preparing and researching for the film and thanked "the characters for allowing me into their lives."
Holy GRA glimpses into the lives of a former aristocrat in a kitsch palace, an ambulance man who rushes to save car crash victims on the ring road, and an elderly bushy-bearded father who shares a tiny apartment with his daughter.
With simple, pared-down shots, the film quietly reveals the vast range of personalities living in tower blocks or country houses under airport flight paths.
"I wanted to be surprised, and Rosi's film was surprising. It was a unanimous choice," said jury head, Italian cinematic master Bernardo Bertolucci.
"Like a one-man orchestra, Rosi managed to reveal these characters to us within this ring road which circles Rome like a ring around Saturn. The world, the spaces in the film, had something Franciscan about them. There was a real sense of purity, the jury felt a poetic force."
The best actor prize on Saturday went to Greece's Themis Panou for his role as a father harboring a deep secret in Alexandros Avranas' Miss Violence.
Avranas received the best director award for the film, with its chilling tale of incest and child suicide.
The award for best actress was picked up by Elena Cotta for her portrayal of a stubborn old lady in southern Italy who refuses to back down from a staring feud in Emma Dante's A Street in Palermo.
Best screenplay went to Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for Stephen Frears' Philomena, a charming tragi- comedy starring Judi Dench, based on the true tale of a mother's search for her son after he is given up for adoption.
Best young actor went to Tye Sheridan for his role in Joe, of a young man desperately trying to protect his family from an alcoholic, abusive father.
Philip Groning's controversial The Police Officer's Wife, a series of episodes which explore a mother's struggle to protect her child from domestic violence, was awarded the special jury prize.