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VENICE (Reuters) - The Venice film festival opens on Wednesday with Italian movie "Baaria," an epic Sicilian drama taking in Fascism, World War Two and Communism and billed as one of the country's biggest movies ever.
Organizers will hope director Giuseppe Tornatore's entry wins over audiences after a series of Italian disappointments in recent years, although it is Hollywood which looks set to grab most of the headlines during the 11-day cinema showcase.
The world's oldest film festival, which runs from September 2-12, has succeeded in luring a string of big names to the sun-drenched Lido waterfront this year as it fights to compete with rival competitions around the world.
Matt Damon appears in "The Informant!," in which he plays a crooked company whistleblower, and Michael Moore brings "Capitalism: A Love Story," a documentary attacking corporate greed and analyzing the recession.
They are expected to be joined on the red carpet by Nicolas Cage, George Clooney, Oliver Stone, Charlize Theron, Eva Mendes, Richard Gere and Sylvester Stallone among others.
Venice is banking on Hollywood heavyweights, and a selection which critics say looks strong on paper, to help it compete with other festivals, most notably Toronto with which it overlaps, and generate early buzz as the awards season approaches.
"I think (Venice director) Marco Mueller realized in particular this year he really has to put together a strong program because a lot of the international press will continue to be leaving and that would be a disaster," said Jay Weissberg, a critic at trade publication Variety.
"That's why he's put in so many American titles because that obviously gets more press."
As well as economic meltdown, dominant themes this year include horror, with George Romero presenting "Survival of the Dead," and animation in the form of a lifetime award for "Toy Story" and "Cars" creator John Lasseter.
Clooney, who has a home in Italy and is a local favorite, appears in "The Men Who Stare at Goats," about a reporter who stumbles across a U.S. military unit in Iraq which employs paranormal powers on its missions.
Author Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic vision of the world in "The Road" makes it to the big screen, with Viggo Mortensen starring with Theron.
Cage appears in Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," a remake of the 1992 movie directed by Abel Ferrara, who has publicly criticized the new version.
U.S. director Todd Solondz is in the main competition line-up of 23 films with "Life During Wartime," and is up against entries that touch on issues including the 1982 war in Lebanon and recent Iranian protests.
Oliver Stone is expected on the red carpet with his documentary "South of the Border," about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, while "Rambo" and "Rocky" star Stallone is to receive an award outside the main festival.
Reflecting Venice's global reach, Egypt's "The Traveler" starring Omar Sharif is in competition, as are pictures from China, Austria, Israel, Japan, France, Hong Kong and Germany.
Fashion is in focus again, with designer Tom Ford bringing his directorial debut "A Single Man" starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.