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Thursday, 29 August, 2002, 09:56 GMT 10:56 UK
The attraction of Venice
Road To Perdition
Road To Perdition is one of the bigger films at Venice

Over the past few years, the Venice Film Festival has emerged as a serious rival to Cannes, attracting high-profile films and even bigger stars.

Along with festivals in London, Edinburgh and Toronto, it is now one of the biggest events in the movie world's calendar.

The world's oldest film festival has come a long way since it first opened its doors on 6 August 1932.

The opening film was Rouben Mammoulian's Doctor Jekyll And Mr Hyde, kicking off a line-up of 25 films from seven participating countries.

Although acting honours were given to Helen Hayes and Frederic March that year, it was another two years before official awards were given out by a jury of professionals.

The festival's top prize, originally known as the Leone De San Marco - after St Mark, the patron saint of Venice - was renamed the Golden Lion in 1949.
Salma Hayek stars as Frida Kahlo in the opening film

These days, the Venice Lido, where the bulk of the action takes place, not only provides an attractive backdrop for stars and filmmakers to ply their wares, but it has a more mainstream feel than its Cannes equivalent.

Here, there is more of a focus on high-quality, prestigious Hollywood fare combined with the best in world cinema.

In recent years Venice has introduced the world to the likes of Eyes Wide Shut, Being John Malkovich, Mexican hit Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, which won last year's Golden Lion.

And the list of those awarded lifetime achievement accolades reads like a Who's Who of the film industry.

Sophia Loren
Sophia Loren has not attended for 20 years
Stanley Kubrick, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski and Steven Spielberg are just a few of the names who have been honoured by Venice.

Like Cannes, it is a competitive festival with a panel of celebrity judges, who this year are headed by Chinese actress Gong Li, a former Venice winner herself.

And this year they will be busier than ever, judging a line-up which begins with this year's opening film - Frida, in which Salma Hayek stars as Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo.

Others include Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven and Sam Mendes' blockbuster Road To Perdition, which arrives at Venice trailing critical acclaim and US box office success in its wake.

And there is strong British representation from Scottish actor-director Peter Mullan with his latest effort The Magdalene Sisters, and Stephen Frears, who will be premiering his latest film Dirty Pretty Things, starring Amelie actress Audrey Tautou.

Meanwhile a new strand, the Countercurrent, will see a further 17 films in competition. These include Steven Soderbergh's latest, Full Frontal, a low-budget unofficial sequel to sex lies and videotape, starring Julia Roberts.

Hanks, Moore and Hayek will be among those attending this year, as will Sophia Loren, who is making her first appearance at the festival in 20 years.
Nicole Kidman
Nicole Kidman made a splash at last year's festival

She had to shelve plans to attend in 1998, to receive a lifetime achievement award, after being hospitalised with a heart condition.

However this year she will be there to fly the flag for Between Strangers, the directorial debut of her son Eduardo Ponti.

One notable absence will be Nicole Kidman, who made such a splash at last year's festival with The Others.

Her latest film The Hours, in which she plays the writer Virginia Woolf, was due to receive its world premiere on the Lido, but post-production delays have led to it being pulled from the line-up.

It is not the only hiccup that the organisers have had this year, as festival director Alberto Barbera quit in a surprise move.

Reports began circulating that the Italian government were looking to make changes to some of the country's cultural institutions, a charge which was later denied.

Barbera was eventually replaced by Moritz de Hadeln, former director of the Berlin Film Festival, who has expressed his own doubts about its importance, questioning some of the films that have taken top honours in recent years.

Gong Li
Chinese actress Gong Li heads the jury
"The Golden Lion has been too often awarded according to risky, esoteric criteria to films which were not up to international standards," he said.

"As with all major prizes, the Lion is not only there to encourage directors or producers, but to prompt the public into going to the movies."

But even he admits that this year's line-up is a strong one, especially given the fact he was drafted in at short notice.

"It's a miracle that we've been able to put together an interesting, rich and varied programme like this in little more than four months," he said.

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