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VENICE - Paolo Sorrentino's film about the death of his own parents, Jane Campion's 1920s frontier saga and a hard-hitting French tale of abortion are among contenders for the top prize at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday, with the race seen wide open.
Film critics agreed the main competition line-up of 21 titles, which included Kristen Stewart's turn as Princess Diana in "Spencer", was one of the strongest in recent memory as many movies were held back during the coronavirus pandemic.
Outside the competition, and ineligible for awards, were Denis Villeneuve's remake of science fiction classic "Dune" and Ridley Scott's medieval epic "The Last Duel".
Those two pictures bumped up the star-power - a vital ingredient to a successful festival, and even more so after last year's subdued edition. Ben Affleck - holding hands with Jennifer Lopez - Matt Damon, Timothee Chalamet, Stewart and Penelope Cruz were among the A-listers on the red carpet.
COVID-19 restrictions meant fans were kept at a distance from celebrities - though Chalamet jumped over a security fence to sign autographs and pose for pictures with a screaming crowd.
There were fewer, smaller parties and, with theatres running at half capacity, many attendees struggled to book seats through the mandatory online platform. But the buzz was back.
"I thought the line-up looked phenomenal going in and it has mainly held up," said Scott Roxborough of the Hollywood Reporter, lauding the mix of Hollywood, big budget movies with more intimate, auteur films such as "Reflection", a Ukrainian film about war against Russian-backed separatists in the east.
He said his favourite film was "Official Competition", an Argentine satire that rips into the cinema industry and is also vying for the Golden Lion top award.
A summary of film reviews by Italian critics on the Lido waterfront gave Sorrentino's "The Hand Of God", also popular with foreign reviewers, the highest score.
"Sorrentino looks like a good compromise pick," said Italian freelance journalist Paola Jacobbi, a Venice veteran, though she added that much would depend on the quirks of the jury, led this year by South Korea's "Parasite" director Bong Joon-ho.
Other films praised by critics included Paul Schrader's "The Card Counter", the story of a soldier turned card player with flashbacks to the Abu Ghraib prison, and Russia's "Captain Volkonogov Escaped", about a state executioner having a crisis of conscience.
The award ceremony wrapping up the 11-day movie marathon takes place on Saturday from 1700 GMT. REUTERS