CANNES, France – British director Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," a saga set amid Ireland's struggle for independence in the early 1920s, won top honors Sunday in an unanimous vote at the Cannes Film Festival.
It was the first time veteran filmmaker Loach won the main prize after seven earlier entries in the main competition at the world's most prestigious film festival.
"The Wind That Shakes the Barley" stars Cillian Murphy as an Irish medical student who takes up arms against a reign of terror by the Black and Tans, British troops sent in to quell calls for independence.
• Fast Facts: 59th Cannes Film Festival Winners
Loach, who previously won the third-place prize at Cannes with 1990's "Hidden Agenda" and 1993's "Raining Stones," said he hoped the film would be a small step encouraging the British to "confront their imperial history. And maybe, if we tell the truth about the past, maybe we tell the truth about the present."
Prizes for best actor and actress went to ensemble casts. Penelope Cruz and her five key cast mates in Pedro Almodovar's "Volver," including Carmen Maura, Yohana Cobo and Lola Duenas, shared the actress prize. The film, a comic drama about women making do without men, also won the screenplay honor for director Almodovar.
"It's such an honor to be able to share this award with all these amazing women," Cruz said. "I think this award really belongs to Pedro, the master. ... Thank you so much, Pedro, for what you do for women."
The men of Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb's World War II saga "Days of Glory," about North African Muslims who volunteered in the fight to free France from the Nazis, received the best-actor honor. The cast included French stars Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri and Sami Bouajila.
In accepting the award, the "Days of Glory" cast joined in on an anthem sung by French colonial soldiers during World War II.
Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won the directing prize for "Babel," which featured Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in a multicultural drama about loosely linked families around the globe.
Inarritu said more than 1,000 people contributed to the production of the film and that "I'm receiving this award on behalf of all of them."
The grand prize for second-place film was given to French director Bruno Dumont's "Flanders," a stark drama following soldiers from dreary farm country through a grisly tour of duty in the Middle East.
The third-place jury prize went to British filmmaker Andrea Arnold's "Red Road," a somber tale about a Scottish woman carrying out surveillance on a man responsible for tragedy in her past.
"Only about five hours ago I was in London, so this is very strange," first-time director Arnold told the Cannes crowd. "It means that maybe more people will see my film, which is very important."
The award for best film from a first-time director went to Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu for his Christmas drama "A Fost Sau N-A Fost?"
On Saturday, Chinese director Wang Chao's "Luxury Car," about a retired teacher searching for his lost son, won top honors in a secondary Cannes competition called "Un Certain Regard."
The main competition's three high-profile American films — including Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette," starring Kirsten Dunst as the 18th century French queen — were shut out for prizes. "Marie Antoinette" earned praise for its style and visual panache but was criticized as a superficial treatment of the Austrian aristocrat who became a symbol of extravagance preceding the French Revolution.
The other U.S. entries were Richard Linklater's consumer satire "Fast Food Nation," which had a lukewarm reaction, and Richard Kelly's darkly comic tale of apocalypse "Southland Tales," which received a scathing response from critics who scorned it as self-indulgent nonsense.
The nine-member jury that chose Cannes winners was headed by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai and included actors Samuel L. Jackson, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, Monica Bellucci and Ziyi Zhang. Wong said the decision for the top prize was unanimous.
The 59th edition of the world's most prestigious film festival opened May 17 with Tom Hanks and Ron Howard's "The Da Vinci Code," which received a harsh reception from Cannes critics but went on to become an instant blockbuster the following weekend. The film did not compete for prizes at Cannes.
Other high-profile films that screened out of competition included the superhero adventure "X-Men: The Last Stand," the animated comedy "Over the Hedge" and the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," chronicling former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's efforts to educate the public about global warming.