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LONDON (Reuters) - Hollywood legends and obscure arthouse directors descend on Cannes from Wednesday for the world's biggest film festival that combines edgy cinema with A-list celebrities, glitzy parties and frenetic deal-making.
Clint Eastwood is in the main competition with "Changeling," starring Angelina Jolie, pitting him against, among others, Kornel Mundruczo of Hungary in the kind of David-and-Goliath contest on which Cannes thrives.
Out of competition, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas will be on the famed red carpet in the palm-lined seafront town with the latest Indiana Jones adventure featuring Harrison Ford and Cate Blanchett.
Woody Allen also presents "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" starring Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardem.
The 61st edition of the super-charged 12-day movie marathon has a strong South American flavor, with two Argentinian and two Brazilian films in the main competition lineup.
From Argentina comes Pablo Trapero's prison drama "Leonera" and thriller "The Headless Woman" by Lucrecia Martel, and Brazil has Walter Salles's "Line of Passage" and "Blindness," directed by Fernando Meirelles of "City of God" fame.
"I think it reflects what people have been talking about, and that is the re-emergence of quality cinema throughout Latin America, including Mexico, Argentina and Brazil," said Jay Weissberg, Rome-based critic for trade publication Variety.
U.S. director Steven Soderbergh also presents "Che," his two-part, four-and-a-half-hour epic on Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, with Benicio del Toro in the title role.
Italy has an unusually strong presence in Cannes, with two competition films dealing with the dark side of its recent past.
"Gamorra" is directed by Matteo Garrone and based on Roberto Saviano's book about how the Neapolitan mafia works and makes its money, while "Il Divo," by Paolo Sorrentino, tells the story of controversial former prime minister Giulio Andreotti.
Outside the main lineup comes "Sangue Pazzo" based on the story of two actors who fall foul of partisan rebels fighting fascism at the end of World War Two.
"What's interesting is that Italians have still never processed their fascist past, and I think that is borne out by the election of the mayor here in Rome," Weissberg said, referring to Gianni Alemanno, a former youth leader of a neo-fascist party.
"It is topical particularly after the Italian elections. In the past, there have been films about Iraq. Now I think it's the Italian political scene that will be the object of analysis."
Previous winners of the Palme d'Or vying for the prize again in 2008 are Belgium's Dardenne brothers, Soderbergh and German director Wim Wenders, whose "Palermo Shooting" features Milla Jovovich, Dennis Hopper, Patti Smith and Lou Reed.
Adding to the star power in Cannes will be Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix, who are in competition with James Gray's "Two Lovers," as is Philip Seymour Hoffman with Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York."
Israeli director Ari Folman is contesting the main award with "Waltz With Bashir," his eagerly anticipated animated documentary about the 1982 Sabra and Shatila camp massacres by members of the Christian Israeli-backed Lebanese Forces militia.
Singer Madonna is due to be in Cannes and Robert De Niro will present the Palme d'Or at the closing ceremony on May 25.
Two of sport's most charismatic but troubled figures are also expected in the Riviera resort -- Argentinian soccer hero Diego Maradona and U.S. heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, both the subjects of new documentaries.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)
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