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VENICE (Reuters) - The real-life story of a young woman's trek across the Australian desert with four camels and a film about a stand-off between two female Sicilian motorists opened the competition for the 70th Venice film festival on Thursday.
The 10-day cinema circus showcases 3,470 feature-length and short films, of which 20 new works have been selected to compete for eight awards including the coveted Golden Lion for best film.
"Tracks", with Australian actress Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver of TV series "Girls", and director Emma Dante's "Via Castellana Bandiera" kicked off the first day of competition for the gongs, a day after the festival opened with space drama "Gravity", starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.
"Tracks", based on Robyn Davidson's 1979 book about her own journey, shows a young woman, bored with city life and haunted by the deaths of her dog and her mother, travelling almost 2,000 miles from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean.
"I'd always been drawn to the purity of the desert, its hot wind and wide open spaces," Davidson, played by Wasikowska, says early in the film.
She sets out on her trip with four camels, brought to Australia by early settlers, earning her the nickname "Camel Lady".
"I think it would be hard for an Australian not to respond to the film on a visceral level," Hollywood Reporter critic David Rooney told Reuters after the debut screening.
"I found it quite transporting actually, like I was there in the desert with her."
Davidson's quest for solitude - interrupted by Driver as National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan and the more welcome company of aboriginal Mr. Eddy - resonates in the Internet age, director John Curran said.
"A young person's desire to disconnect and get away and be on their own is probably more relevant now than 10 years ago," Curran said at a news conference.
The characters in "Via Castellana Bandiera", named after a street in Palermo, are also taking stock. Two women drivers, one from a local family, the other returning to the city with her lesbian lover, are brought face-to-face with pain and death when they cause an impromptu traffic jam.
Families up and down the shabby, narrow street place bets on which of the two women will back down as they glare at each other across their steering wheels, throw away food that is offered them and try to see who will give way.
In the process, they both see deeply into themselves, and realize dark secrets about their own natures, Dante said.
"It's like the Minotaur looking at his reflection in the mirror and seeing a monster ... there is a monster inside of all of us," said the director, filming her own first novel.
Attending the festival to receive a lifetime achievement award, veteran American director William Friedkin attacked the modern practice of watching films on smartphones and said young people in cinema should leave film school and ignore critics.
"Go out, get a small camera, make your film, edit it at home, put it on a website and do it yourself," said Friedkin, whose films include "The Exorcist" and "The French Connection", for which he won an Oscar.
"Nobody can teach you how to do cinema. It is something that you learn by doing and by seeing. Because cinema begets cinema."
The festival concludes on September 7 with the awards ceremony to announce the winners of the top prizes.
Additional reporting by Michael Roddy; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall