Aug 28, 2007

Venice festival explores the dark side

LONDON (Reuters) - The Venice Film Festival gets serious this year with competition films about the Iraq war and its impact on U.S. society, police brutality in Egypt, big corporation corruption and the mafia in Italy.

There are 22 movies vying for the coveted Golden Lion award at the end of the 11-day celebration of cinema, famous for red carpet glamour, late night parties on the canals of Venice and critical kudos of being part of the world's oldest film contest.

Director Marco Mueller has assembled a Hollywood-heavy line up for this year's festival, which opens on Wednesday with "Atonement," the screen adaptation of Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel starring Keira Knightley.

Two competition films are about Iraq, part of a spate of movies on the topic due to hit theatres over the coming months.

"For me cinema is now the best answer to war," Mueller said in a recent interview with an Italian magazine.

Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah," starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon, is the eagerly anticipated film based on the real-life murder of a young soldier who returned to the United States from Iraq.

It is up against Brian De Palma's "Redacted," which tells the story of a U.S. army unit that persecutes an Iraqi family and also examines the way media cover the conflict.

There will be comedy too, notably Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Anjelica Huston and Bill Murray.

But its launch on the Lido waterfront is likely to be overshadowed by news of Wilson's hospitalization this weekend.

The 38-year-old had been expected in Venice for the premiere, but that now looks unlikely. His spokeswoman has declined to discuss Wilson's medical condition after media reports he attempted suicide.

CORRUPTION, BRUTALITY

Also tackling topical issues in Venice are "Michael Clayton," starring George Clooney as a "fixer" who does a major corporation's dirty work, Italy's "Il Dolce e L'Amaro" about the mafia, and Egypt's "Heya Fawda" investigating police brutality.

The annual festival, which ends on September 8, is both a key showcase of art house cinema and an early marker ahead of the Oscars in February.

Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" won the Golden Lion for best film in 2005, and went on to garner eight Oscar nominations. The long list of stars expected this year will be hoping to generate similar early buzz.

Critics have questioned Mueller's decision to choose so many Hollywood productions this year, but some see it as the result of increasing competition from film festivals like Toronto and Rome.

"A lot of Venice films go on to Toronto, and people are not coming to Venice in the same way they did in the past," said Jay Weissberg, a critic with the Variety trade publication.

"It is very expensive, and there is no film market. I think there is a calculation on Marco's part that if you appease the real powers, more people will come."

Other highlights in competition include Brad Pitt in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and "I'm Not There," in which Cate Blanchett is an unusual choice to play singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.

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