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TORONTO (Reuters) - The Toronto International Film Festival made a rare break with tradition at its gala opening on Thursday night, debuting British drama "Creation" at the key event long considered a starting point in the race for Oscars.
For more than three decades, the Toronto film festival has usually opened with a Canadian movie to spotlight the industry within its home country, and its choice of Charles Darwin drama "Creation" has drawn the ire of local filmmakers.
But the controversy seemed fitting to festival organizers because the film looks at evolutionist Darwin's life as he struggles to write his seminal book, "On the Origin of Species," which inspires debate even today.
"We said we wanted to get people talking, and we did that," Cameron Bailey, festival co-director told the opening audience. "The story is 150 years old, but it couldn't be more current."
"Creation" stars Paul Bettany as the man whose theory of natural selection gave rise to the idea that humans evolved from a lower order of beings and were not created by God.
The story takes place when Darwin is in his mid-40's, after he has traveled the world exploring and collecting samples of animal life.
He is certain his theories on natural selection are correct, and he is being pressured by colleagues to write a book that will challenge man's belief in God. Yet his wife, a devout Christian portrayed by Bettany's real-life spouse, Jennifer Connelly, is just as certain he is wrong.
"Creation" offers audiences a humanistic look at Darwin as he wrestles with his own beliefs about God and his devotion to science, while also grieving over the loss of a family member that cannot be explained by his theories of nature.
"We were not trying to promote a single view of the world. We wanted to make the man behind the series accessible and understandable to all of us," said director Jon Amiel.
Yet Amiel knows the movie could draw fire from religious groups, and the storyteller seems prepared to confront a storm.
"Conservative religious and the creationist groups have been so intense on demonizing Darwin that any film which shows him as a real human will likely be viewed as controversial," Amiel said.
Savvy moviemakers know there is nothing quite like a controversy to lure audiences to theaters. Filmmakers worldwide come to Toronto to gain media attention and generate the kind of buzz that could lead to awards in Hollywood's Oscar season.
Combined with the giant film festival in Venice, which winds up this weekend, and a small but influential gathering in Telluride, Colorado, that ended Monday, Toronto is an early stop on the road to the Academy Awards in March.
Last year's best film Oscar winner, "Slumdog Millionaire" was an audience favorite at the 2008 Toronto festival.
This year, several films will aim for similar success including "Up in the Air," starring George Clooney and made by "Juno" director Jason Reitman; "A Serious Man" from past Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen; art house darling Todd Solondz with "Life During Wartime" and documentary maker Michael Moore for "Capitalism: A Love Story." The festival ends on September 19 after screening more than 330 films from 64 countries.
Editing by Doina Chiacu