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CANNES, France (Reuters) - A grim Brazilian drama about society's descent into anarchy launched the Cannes film festival on Wednesday, and politics dominated the opening news conference held by jury president Sean Penn.
"Blindness," starring Julianne Moore, marked a somber start to 12 days of movies, publicity stunts and late-night revelry in the Riviera town, which prides itself on embracing weighty cinema as well as rolling out the red carpet for Hollywood royalty.
Directed by Brazil's Fernando Meirelles, of "City of God" renown, "Blindness" is an English-language adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning writer Jose Saramago's novel of the same name, and tells the story of a plague of blindness sweeping the world.
Moore plays a doctor's wife, who, like the film's audience, sees death, cruelty, degradation as well as dignity around her.
"We consider ourselves so strong and sophisticated and solid, and then one thing goes and everything collapses," Meirelles told reporters after a press screening. "We are skating on thin ice. Anything can happen and everything does."
The movie had its premiere in the evening, with Dennis Hopper, Eva Longoria Parker and Cate Blanchett among the stars joining cast and jury in front of hundreds of fans.
Penn, who heads the nine-member jury that decides which of 22 entries in the main competition receives the coveted Palme d'Or for best film, hinted that the winner was likely to be one that tackled contemporary issues.
"Whatever we select for the Palme d'Or, I think that we all are in sync that we're going to feel very confident that the ... maker of that film was very aware of the times in which he lives," the U.S. actor-director said.
Penn, an outspoken detractor of George W. Bush, renewed his criticism of the U.S. president.
"When somebody operates without a brain and without a heart, they kill hundreds of thousands of people around the world," he told a news briefing during which he lit a cigarette in defiance of French anti-smoking laws.
Meirelles said it was both a challenge and an honor to open Cannes, but added of "Blindness": "To be honest, I still don't think this is the best film to open a festival."
Moore called the choice "kind of odd."
Much of the film is set in an abandoned asylum outside an unnamed city, where those stricken by the contagious "White Sickness" -- so called because the blind see white, not black -- are locked up by increasingly panicked authorities.
A workable system of living despite the squalor soon breaks down when one prisoner, played by Mexico's Gael Garcia Bernal, takes the law into his own hands.
Among the other entries in competition is "Waltz With Bashir," the animated documentary about the 1982 Sabra and Shatila camp massacres which screened late on Wednesday.
It is up against Clint Eastwood's "Changeling," starring Angelina Jolie, who confirmed on Wednesday in an interview in Cannes that she was expecting twins with Brad Pitt.
Steven Soderbergh presents "Che," a two-part, four-and-a-half hour epic about Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara with Benicio del Toro in the title role.
The other two U.S. entries are James Gray's "Two Lovers," featuring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix, and Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The biggest show in town this year is likely to be the latest installment of the Indiana Jones series, again starring Harrison Ford as the whip-wielding archaeologist in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" by Steven Spielberg.