VENICE, Italy – The Venice Film Festival opened its 75th anniversary edition Wednesday with an all-world premiere competition for the coveted Golden Lion and a cascade of stars including George Clooney, Keira Knightley and Woody Allen.
In their constant search for new talent and cinematic trends, the organizers of the world's oldest running film festival reached out to young directors this year.
Opening the 11-day festival was "Atonement," the screen adaptation of Ian McEwan's best-selling novel starring Knightley and James McAvoy and directed by 35-year-old Joe Wright. Venice closes Sept. 8 with the Hong Kong-Taiwanese gangster-thriller "Blood Brothers" by first-time director Alexi Tan.
In all, seven first-time directors and six second-time directors are appearing at the festival.
But some Venice veterans will be making a return, including Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee, who, two years after previewing "Brokeback Mountain" at the Lido returns with "Lust, Caution," a Chinese-language spy thriller set in World War II.
Venice always courts controversy, and this year it centered on the organizers' notation of Lee's film as originating from "Taiwan, China." Taiwan complained that the label suggests the self-ruled island is part of mainland China.
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949, but Beijing still considers self-ruled Taiwan as its territory and has threatened to retake it by force. Taiwanese officials blamed China for the notation.
Festival director Marco Mueller told a news conference that they list countries as presented by the producers -- and that the festival would change the listing if it received a request from all of the various production houses involved in the film.
"Unfortunately, being a film festival, our relation is of course with the national representatives, very specifically, with the producers," Mueller said. "So, in the case of Ang Lee ... a very precise communication was received by our office that the country of origin of the film had to be listed in a different way."
This year's lineup boasts some of the most eagerly anticipated new films of the fall film season -- many making their world premieres. More than 90 percent of the 57 featured films and all the 23 films competing for the Golden Lion are premieres.
Besides the 22 films already announced, Mueller said a surprise entry into the competition would be announced later in the festival. As it has been the last three years, it will be an Asian film. In fact, last year's surprise entry, which does not appear in the official catalog, won the Golden Lion: the Chinese movie "Still Life."
"Actually, the producer is still mixing the film right now," Mueller said. "It won't be from Japan, China or Korea," referring to the countries that contributed the previous surprise entries.
Under Mueller, who took over four years ago, the festival also has earned a reputation for spawning major award contenders: Films launched at Venice over the last three years have garnered 51 Oscar nominations.
"We went for the gut feeling, we went for the heart and gut emotion -- and only on second thought did we think about how to harmonize the program," Mueller said.
This year's selection are heavily weighted toward Anglo-American productions with an unprecedented seven English-language films. Mueller has been criticized for being under Hollywood's sway, but he has said that some of the strongest films were emerging from the English-language world, often grappling with the issue of politics and war.
The theme is expressed in Brian De Palma's "Redacted," a series of stories about U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah," which tells the tale of an Iraq war veteran gone missing after his return from a tour of duty.
Also vying for the top prize at Venice: "Michael Clayton," starring George Clooney in a legal drama about a corporate firm battling a class-action lawsuit, and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and Sam Shepherd.
Woody Allen premieres his "Cassandra's Dream," which is showing out of competition. Starring Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell, it tells the story of two brothers -- one a chronic gambler and another in love with a beautiful actress -- who try to improve their lives and become entangled in a sinister situation.
Kenneth Branagh is presenting a remake of the 1972 film "Sleuth," with Michael Caine appearing this time as a wealthy writer engaged in a battle of wits with a young actor having an affair with his wife. Jude Law reprises Caine's 1972 role as the younger man.
American director Tim Burton will be presented with a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement by Johnny Depp, who started in such Burton creations as "Edward Scissorhands."
While the Venice festival celebrates its 75th anniversary, it is the 64th edition of the festival, which was periodically canceled due to war and other reasons.
The Golden Lion will be presented in a gala ceremony on Sept. 8.