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VENICE (Reuters) - The Venice film festival opened on Wednesday with big-budget Italian movie "Baaria," a sentimental sweep through 20th century Sicily taking in Fascism, war, Communism and the mafia.
Billed as one of Italy's most expensive movies costing 25 million euros ($36 million), the first home-made film to open Venice for around 20 years kicked off 11 days of screenings, photo shoots, parties and red carpet glamour on the Lido island.
Director Giuseppe Tornatore, whose 1988 movie "Cinema Paradiso" won a foreign film Oscar, said the story of a poor family living through the upheaval of the last century was partly based on his own memories of life in Sicily.
He told reporters ahead of the official evening premiere that he wanted to use his birthplace as a microcosm of what was happening in the wider world.
"It might be any other place," he said, speaking through an interpreter. "The idea was not to tell the story of Sicily. The idea was to tell the story of a number of characters in the microcosm of a small town, hearing the echoes of what was happening around the town and far from that town."
And so Peppino, the central character played by Francesco Scianna, joins the Communist movement, travels to the Soviet Union where he sees first hand what it really means for citizens there and lives briefly in France seeking work.
But Sicily's passionate people also play a prominent part in a sumptuously shot film set amid olive groves, rugged hills and the ever-changing streets of Baaria.
Actress Eva Mendes and director Ang Lee, who is president of the jury in Venice, walked along the opening night red carpet, cheered on by hundreds of fans.
While Venice organizers would welcome an Italian hit after home-grown films generally flopped in recent years, the success of the festival will be judged as much by how many Hollywood stars turn up and the quality of the movies they bring.
The early signs are promising, with Matt Damon, Michael Moore, Nicolas Cage, George Clooney, Oliver Stone, Richard Gere and Sylvester Stallone among those due to walk the red carpet.
The cinema complex on the Lido waterfront is being re-built in a 100-million euro makeover designed to drag the world's oldest film festival into the 21st century and help it compete with other festivals, notably Toronto, with which it overlaps.
On Thursday Viggo Mortensen comes with "The Road," based on author Cormac McCarthy's bleak, post-apocalyptic vision of the world which also stars Charlize Theron.
Damon appears in "The Informant!" as a crooked company whistleblower, and Moore brings "Capitalism: A Love Story," a documentary attacking corporate greed amid the recession.
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.
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.