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LONDON (Reuters) - What the Venice film festival lacks in star power this year it hopes to make up for with an unusually young list of directors and the appearance of some of Hollywood's more enigmatic figures.
With the irrepressible Quentin Tarantino heading the jury that hands out the coveted Golden Lion at the end of the September 1-11 event, it is fitting that mavericks and misfits more than movie royalty look set to steal the headlines.
"In a way Venice can still hold itself up and say 'we've got the edgier American people coming, as you have Vincent Gallo and Monte Hellman, for example," said Jay Weissberg, film critic for trade publication Variety who is based in Italy.
"It makes it look as if they are holding up the art side of cinema."
It is a calculated gamble at a time when Venice, the world's oldest film festival and one of its most prestigious, is struggling to fight off competition from Toronto, which overlaps with Venice and features many of the same movies.
Its location in North America, relatively low costs and the presence of so many industry executives looking to deal all make Toronto a tempting alternative for studios keen to showcase their films as the unofficial cinema awards race gets underway.
Stars expected in Venice this year include Natalie Portman, Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, Catherine Deneuve and Tarantino, but, according to The Hollywood Reporter, "that's still a far cry from the star-studded cast of previous years."
Youth, at least, is on Venice's side, with the average age of filmmakers in the main competition an unusually low 47.
They include 41-year-old Darren Aronofsky, winner of the Golden Lion in 2008 with "The Wrestler," who presents "Black Swan," a ballet-themed psychological drama starring Portman.
Also in competition is Oscar winner Sofia Coppola, 39, with comic drama "Somewhere."
At the other end of the age range are 78-year-old Hellman, competing with low-budget crime drama "Road to Nowhere," and Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski, 72, on the Lido beachfront with the thriller "Essential Killing."
In Essential Killing, actor and painter Gallo stars as an Afghan Taliban fighter who is captured but escapes on his way to a secret detention center in Europe.
The topical subject, and Gallo's reputation as an uncompromising, eccentric artist, make it one of the more eagerly anticipated movies in competition.
Robert Rodriguez's out-of-competition "Machete" has also been highlighted. The action picture set partly along the U.S.-Mexico border features Jessica Alba, Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan and Robert De Niro.
"With Mexico, immigration and the drug wars a daily front page story in the U.S., Machete is likely to draw ample buzz," said Sheri Jennings of Screen International.
Actor and director Casey Affleck presents his documentary "I'm Still Here," about his brother-in-law actor Joaquin Phoenix's surprise decision to retire in 2008 and reinvent himself as a hip-hop musician.
A bizarre TV chat show appearance last year as a mumbling, shaggy-haired guest had industry watchers wondering if Phoenix's new act was a hoax, and already critics are debating whether I'm Still Here is more "mockumentary" than documentary.
And Julian Schnabel directs "Slumdog Millionaire" star Freida Pinto in "Miral," about an orphaned Palestinian girl growing up in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli war who finds herself drawn into the conflict.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Angus MacSwan