Hollywood's premier cash-and-award magnet Steven Spielberg (search) was kicking off the Venice Film Festival (search) on Wednesday -- just the man to inspire money-scooping moguls and prize-hungry artists alike during 11 days of glitz and film magic.

The opening night's gala screening is Spielberg's "The Terminal," (search) in which an Eastern European traveler played by Tom Hanks (search) has the lousy luck to get stuck in an airport, but the good fortune to find Catherine Zeta-Jones (search) on the premises.

Sure, the movie may have opened in the United States over two months ago, but it gave Venice a chance to parade the biggest crowd-pleaser in any festival's arsenal: American celebrities. Others expected to toddle along the red carpet include Robert De Niro (search), Angelina Jolie, Will Smith, John Travolta and Al Pacino (search).

Before his arrival, Spielberg eulogized the glorious lagoon city, saying it helps people rediscover their sense of wonder. "The festival, the city and the islands around it are a place rich with charm where cinema finds a magical setting," he said in a column published in Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Magic there may be. But this year's festival is also about grim realities, particularly among the 21 films jostling for the prestigious Golden Lion awards.

"Mar Adentro," by Alejandro Amenabar ("The Others"), tells of a paralyzed Spaniard's attempts to end his life. Britain's Mike Leigh grinds it up with "Vera Drake," about an abortionist in 1950s England. German Wim Wenders addresses American life after the Sept. 11 attacks in "Land of Plenty." And Amos Gitai's "Promised Land" deals with enslavement in Israel.

Other contenders are the Nicole Kidman vehicle "Birth"; Mira Nair's adaptation of Thackeray's 19th-century novel "Vanity Fair"; American Todd Solondz's "Palindromes"; "L'Intrus" by Claire Denis of France; and Italian Gianni Amelio's "Le Chiavi di Casa."

Out-of-competition pictures include a heap of attention-grabbing U.S. fare including Jonathan Demme's remake of "The Manchurian Candidate"; (search) Spike Lee's "She Hate Me" (he's also on the awards jury); Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin"; and "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" with Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jolie.

Big non-American productions include the three-director picture "Eros," made by Michelangelo Antonioni, Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-wai, as well as a British-Italian version of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," starring Al Pacino as Shylock.

Furthermore, there are dozens of less-mainstream features and shorts playing at sites around Venice's Lido, the little island where the festival is held off the center of the canal city.

The nine-person jury that gives out the Golden Lions (search) is headed by British director John Boorman and includes Lee, actresses Scarlett Johansson and Helen Mirren, among others. The awards will be handed out Sept. 11 at a ceremony hosted by Sophia Loren.