Rome The Venice Film Festival is grappling with its perennial tag as the No. 2 movie extravaganza in Europe -- still a little brother to Cannes in terms of stars, marketing and buzz, even though it's older.
The 61st edition begins today. But it remains caught between the desire to be cutting-edge and the need for glitz. The result: heavy doses of both.
The opening gala features "The Terminal," with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks on hand. Later, Nicole Kidman will shimmer in with her reincarnation picture, "Birth." And big fish Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie and Will Smith are promoting voiceovers for the animated "Shark Tale."
Away from the flashbulbs, 21 pictures will battle it out in darkened screening rooms for the Golden Lion awards. The competitors are a varied bunch.
"The Others" director Alejandro Amenabar presents "Mar Adentro," a true story about a paralyzed Spaniard's attempts to end his life. Mira Nair's adaptation of Thackeray's 19th century novel "Vanity Fair" features Reese Witherspoon as the memorable Becky Sharp. Mike Leigh offers another intense social drama in "Vera Drake," about an abortionist in 1950s England.
Other top contenders: "Promised Land," by Amos Gitai; Todd Solondz's "Palindromes"; Wim Wenders' "Land of Plenty"; "L'Intrus" by Claire Denis; Gianni Amelio's "Le Chiavi di Casa"; and "Howl's Moving Castle," an animated work by Hayo Miyazaki.
Out-of-competition pictures include a heap of attention-grabbing U.S. fare including Jonathan Demme's remake of "The Manchurian Candidate"; 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.
One new element this year is the festival's director, Marco Muller, who took over after the ouster of Moritz de Hadeln, an outspoken boss who candidly acknowledged that the Venice Film Festival had slipped in stature.
Muller, an Italian movie producer who previously headed smaller festivals, is already facing questions about the place of his festival. He insists that Venice isn't struggling to catch up with Cannes.
"But if Venice wants to steadily hold its own as one of the two great European and world festivals, it cannot but look at Cannes -- a festival that in the past looked at the model of Venice but then has been able to count on many more resources to experiment with new solutions," he recently told the ANSA news agency.
Among Muller's decisions: requiring black tie at evening gala screenings to raise the festival's elegance level.
Unfortunately, the opening-gala choice of "The Terminal" -- which opened more than two months ago in the United States to mixed reviews -- is unlikely to provide the dynamite kickoff the festival could use. Venice will have to count on the later flood of stars and its diverse list of films.
Among these are hundreds of smaller pictures playing at sites around Venice's Lido, the little island where the festival is held off the center of the canal city. Retrospectives will also fill up Lido screens, including one on old Italian B-movies co-presented by Quentin Tarantino.
The nine-person jury that gives out the Golden Lions is headed by director John Boorman and includes Lee, Scarlett Johansson and Helen Mirren, among others. The awards will be handed out Sept. 11 at a ceremony hosted by Sophia Loren.