LONDON (Reuters) - The Venice film festival opens on Wednesday with Hollywood A-listers George Clooney and Brad Pitt on the red carpet for the Coen brothers' eagerly awaited "Burn After Reading," but from then on Tinseltown takes a back seat.
Asia could win the Golden Lion for best film for the fourth year running with three Japanese entries in competition, including animator Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea" which is already storming the box office at home.
Italy has four movies in the main line-up of 21 movies vying for prizes at the world's oldest film festival, which is prestigious in its own right and serves as an early springboard for Oscar glory.
"The official competition at the Venice film festival may be called 'Venezia 65', but ... it is just coming of age as a launching pad for Academy Award fare," award watcher Tom O'Neil wrote on Web site "Gold Derby" (goldderby.latimes.com).
"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 directing.
The black comedy follows two gym employees as they seek to sell a computer disc containing memoirs of a sacked CIA analyst, but events spiral out of their, and everyone else's control.
U.S. films in competition in Venice include "Rachel Getting Married," directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme and starring Anne Hathaway and three-time Academy Award nominee Debra Winger.
Kathryn Bigelow directs Iraq 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.
Festival director Marco Mueller said the lighter Hollywood presence this year was partly due to disruptions caused by a 14-week writers' strike that ended in February.
Miyazaki leads a Japanese competition trio, including two animated films, in Venice, which traditionally combines obscure art house cinema with top celebrities.
The director of Oscar-winning animated film "Spirited Away" brings "Ponyo," which has become one of the most popular Japanese movies in its home market with more than $90 million in box office sales in its first month of release.
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."
Other highlights include veteran film-makers Manoel de Oliveira, who turns 100 this year, and Mario Monicelli, who will present two short works at the festival which ends on September 6.
Also 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 Mary Gabriel