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LONDON (Reuters) - Venice is putting its faith in sex and Scientology this year to generate the kind of buzz the world's oldest film festival needs to stay ahead of a growing field of rivals.
Celebrating its 80th anniversary, the annual cinema showcase on the Lido island across the water from the Canal City has long competed with overlapping Toronto to attract the best movies and biggest stars to its red carpet and glitzy party circuit.
It has another challenger in the form of the Rome festival held in November, which has bolstered its credentials by hiring Venice's respected outgoing artistic director Marco Mueller.
He is replaced by Alberto Barbera, who is well aware that high prices and creaking infrastructure on the Lido have played into rivals' hands.
"Rome and Venice are coming into their new editions like boxers going into a ring," said Jay Weissberg, Hollywood trade paper Variety's Rome critic who closely follows the Italian festival scene. "The war of words has already played out in the press for the last couple of months."
Barbera has introduced a small film market this year to make Venice more commercially attractive for studios, although there are doubts over how much business the initiative will generate.
But his main task is to lure a selection of movies that ensures A-list star power, media buzz and a global spread of low-budget, high-quality cinema. On paper, the outlook for the August 29-September 8 event looks promising.
There is no George Clooney, a Venice regular, and the festival will not feature heavyweights like Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. But a band of up-and-coming performers will partly compensate and help banish Venice's fusty image.
Zac Efron and Shia LaBeouf, popular American actors in their mid-20s, are looking to break away from movie musicals and blockbusters, while Disney actress/singer Selena Gomez, who is dating Canadian chart-topper Justin Bieber, is in town to promote one of a string of films she has made this year.
Robert Redford and Julie Christie represent the older generation, and with Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck and the unpredictable Joaquin Phoenix are among the big draws doing the rounds of interviews and photo-shoots to promote their movies.
The most talked-about movie in Venice could well be "The Master", Paul Thomas Anderson's story about a religious cult which film critics who have seen clips say bears clear similarities to Scientology.
Anderson has been quoted as saying that the role of Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.
And distributor The Weinstein Company features a news report on its website that calls The Master a "Scientology-tinged religious drama".
Yet both Anderson and Harvey Weinstein have played down parallels with the self-described religion that counts Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its followers but has been cast by opponents as a cult that harasses people who seek to quit and coerces followers to think like they do.
Sex is high on the agenda, with Brian De Palma's revenge thriller "Passion" working up an early head of steam through its racy trailer featuring McAdams and Noomi Rapace.
Sex and religion combine in South Korean director Kim Ki-duk's "Pieta", while Terrence Malick, back on the European festival circuit a year after "The Tree of Life" won the Palme d'Or in Cannes, presents "To the Wonder", which has been given an "R" rating for scenes of nudity and sex.
Also in a slimmed-down main competition of 18 films is Marco Bellocchio's "Bella Addormentata" about Eluana Englaro, a woman left in a vegetative state by a car crash who was at the centre of a lengthy right-to-die case that divided opinion in Italy.
"Collateral" director Michael Mann leads the jury that must decide who wins the coveted Golden Lion for best picture. Last year the prize went to "Faust" by Russia's Alexander Sokurov.
Out of competition, Redford arrives with political action thriller "The Company You Keep" in which he also stars as a former U.S. left-wing militant pursued by an aggressive young reporter, played by LaBeouf.
The opening film is Mira Nair's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" which follows a Pakistani immigrant in the United States who sees his life overturned by 9/11.
The Indian director is one of several female film makers in Venice, and among them is Saudi Arabia's Haifaa al-Mansour, who says her movie "Wadjda" is the first full-length feature to have been shot entirely in the Kingdom.
And Spike Lee brings Michael Jackson documentary "Bad 25" celebrating the 25th anniversary of the singer's album "Bad".
Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Pravin Char