ROME: Hollywood veterans will brush shoulders with up and coming starlets and auteurs in Venice starting on Wednesday for the film festival in which women directors are set to take centre stage.
Robert Redford will fly in for the first time to the world's oldest movie festival, where Terrence Malick's "To The Wonder" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" will be among the 18 films vying for the Golden Lion prize.
Women directed a total of 21 of the 52 films being shown and there will be a particular focus this year on the economic crisis gripping the Western world, the Arab Spring revolutions and the theme of religious fundamentalism.
Music is also on the menu with Spike Lee's hotly anticipated "Bad 25" documentary about pop icon Michael Jackson and Jonathan Demme of "The Silence of the Lambs" fame with his homage to Neapolitan crooner Enzo Avitabile.
"A festival should not just be a catwalk for celebrities," festival director Alberto Barbera told reporters in Rome last month as he unveiled the line-up.
"Festivals should revert to their original roles of exploration, of scoping out innovation, instead of relying only on established producers," he said.
Barbera said he had "taken risks" with a mix of "established directors and many unknown young directors from countries without cinematic traditions."
The first edition of the festival was held in 1932 on the terrace of the glamorous Excelsior Hotel on the Venice Lido and featured movies of some of the best known directors of the time like Frank Capra and Howard Hawks.
Among the newcomers is Haifaa al-Mansour from Saudi Arabia - where cinemas are banned and women face sweeping daily discrimination - with her film "Wadjda" about a little girl desperate for a bicycle which she is not allowed.
Alongside US stars like Ben Affleck, Brian De Palma, Kate Hudson, Selena Gomez and Winona Ryder, there will also be world-famous Asian directors Takeshi Kitano of Japan ("Outrage Beyond") and Kim Ki-duk of South Korea ("Pieta").
The festival kicks off with a showing of US-based Indian director Mira Nair's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" - a political thriller about a young Pakistani man torn between Wall Street ambitions and the call of his homeland.
It winds up on September 8 when a jury headed by US producer Michael Mann with Hong Kong director Peter Chan, British actress Samantha Norton and French model Laetitia Casta will pick the winners of the Golden Lion.
"To The Wonder" will be only Malick's seventh film in a directing career that began in 1969. It tells the story of an increasingly turbulent relationship between Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Affleck).
Anderson's "The Master" is set to kick up a storm with its thinly-veiled portrayal of the early years of Scientology with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing "Lancaster Dodd" - a character based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Going back into Hollywood lore, the festival will also feature reclusive Oscar-winner Michael Cimino ("The Deer Hunter") and a new director's cut of his epic Western "Heaven's Gate" - one of the biggest movie flops of all time.
"This is a tardy but necessary recognition of the greatness of a visionary director, one of the most intense and original voices in American cinema of the past 40 years who has been gradually reduced to silence," Barbera said.
On a more contemporary note is Ibrahim El Batout's "Winter of Discontent" -- a feature film which was shot in part during last year's demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square that ultimately unseated veteran president Hosni Mubarak.
The film's protagonists are a political activist, a journalist and a state security officer whose lives entwine in the middle of the revolution.
Tunisian director Hinde Boujemaa will also bring to the Venice Lido beach her first film - the documentary "It Was Better Tomorrow" about a woman struggling to change her life in the middle of the Tunisian revolution.
Among other women directors taking part in the festival will be Algeria's Djamila Sahraoui, Argentina's Jazmin Lopez and US-born Rama Burshtein.
Barbera said: "Maybe this is a sign that something is finally changing in the world of cinema, which as we all know is very sexist.”