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VENICE (Reuters) - Brad Pitt and George Clooney hit the red carpet on Wednesday with their latest movie "Burn After Reading," a satirical comedy by Oscar winners the Coen brothers which opens this year's Venice film festival.
The actors will bring A-list star power to the 11-day event which features everything from obscure Asian art house cinema to Hollywood heavyweights.
Although there are five U.S. films in the main competition lineup of 21, they all represent lower-budget, "independent" cinema as opposed to the big studios, which are not in Venice this time around.
Festival director Marco Mueller brushed aside concerns that Venice, which faces stiff competition from the Toronto film festival starting next month and the Rome film festival in October, was struggling to secure top titles and talent.
Mueller, who with his team saw around 3,000 films which were whittled down to 55 in the official selection, said the lighter Hollywood studio presence was partly down to the 14-week writers' strike that ended in February.
"We have five American films in competition and most of those films are films with stars, so in a way the strike only meant that some of the bigger studio films will only be released late December or January," he told Reuters.
"But American cinema is very much at the centre of the program."
"Burn After Reading" is not in competition, but reaction in Venice will indicate whether Joel and Ethan Coen can repeat their success of 2008 when "No Country For Old Men" won four Academy Awards including best picture and director.
The festival, held on the Lido island just across the water from the canal city, is increasingly seen as an early barometer of Oscar glory, and recently helped launch the award campaigns of films such as "The Queen" and "Brokeback Mountain."
"Burn After Reading" is a black comedy that follows two gym employees seeking to sell a computer disc containing memoirs of a sacked CIA analyst, but events quickly spiral out of control.
U.S. films in competition in Venice include "Rachel Getting Married," directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme and starring Anne Hathaway and Debra Winger, who has been nominated three times for an Academy Award.
Kathryn Bigelow directs Iraqi drama "The Hurt Locker," a year after Brian De Palma's "Redacted" stunned audiences in Venice with its brutal reconstruction of real-life events from the war.
Mickey Rourke stars in Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" while acclaimed Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga makes his directorial debut with "The Burning Plain" starring Oscar-winners Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger.
Japan has three main competition entries, led by revered animation director Hayao Miyazaki whose "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea" is already storming the box office at home.
Joining it will be Mamoru Oshii's animated "The Sky Crawlers," while Takeshi Kitano, who won the Golden Lion in 1997, presents "Achilles and the Tortoise."
Out of competition, Matt Tyrnauer brings his documentary of Italian fashion designer Valentino called "Valentino: The Last Emperor," while Emmanuelle Beart stars in Fabrice Du Welz's horror "Vinyan."
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)
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