The Venice film festival kicks off on Wednesday with the arrival of stars on water taxis for an art-house dominated line-up dealing with issues from religious extremism to economic crisis.
First up at the world's oldest film festival will be a showing of Mira Nair's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" -- a political thriller about a young Pakistani man torn between Wall Street ambitions and the call of his homeland.
Among the most keenly awaited premieres are Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" -- a complex love story starring Ben Affleck -- and Robert Redford's "The Company You Keep" with himself as a former Weather Underground militant.
One of the 18 films vying for the Golden Lion prize will be Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a character resembling Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard -- a movie bound to raise controversy.
Music is also on the menu with Spike Lee's hotly anticipated "Bad 25" documentary about pop icon Michael Jackson and Jonathan Demme of "The Silence of the Lambs" fame with his homage to Neapolitan crooner Enzo Avitabile.
Luxury yachts could be seen moored in some of the most picturesque corners of Venice ready to host festival parties and singing gondoliers were being kept busy plying the waterways with Hollywood veterans and up-and-coming auteurs.
Alongside US stars like director Brian De Palma and actresses Kate Hudson, Selena Gomez and Winona Ryder, there are also famous Asian directors Takeshi Kitano of Japan ("Outrage Beyond") and Kim Ki-duk of South Korea ("Pieta").
The first edition of the festival was held back in 1932 on the terrace of the glamorous Excelsior Hotel on the Venice Lido and featured movies by some of the best known directors of the time like Frank Capra and Howard Hawks.
This year's festival, which runs until September 8, will project a total of 52 films including 21 by women directors -- in contrast with the Cannes festival this year which featured no women directors for films in competition.
The Venice jury this year is headed up by US director, screenwriter and producer Michael Mann and includes French model and actress Laetitia Casta, British actress Samantha Norton and Hong Kong director Peter Chan.
Festival director Alberto Barbera spoke proudly of the modernisation of some of the festival's ageing infrastructure and stressed that the aim for organisers had been to steer clear of creating "a catwalk for celebrities."
"Festivals should revert to their original roles of exploration, of scoping out innovation, instead of relying only on established producers," he said.
Barbera said he had "taken risks" with a mix of "established directors and many unknown young directors from countries without cinematic traditions."
Among the newcomers is Haifaa al-Mansour from Saudi Arabia -- where cinemas are banned and women face sweeping daily discrimination -- with her film "Wadjda" about a little girl desperate for a bicycle which she is not allowed.
Going back into Hollywood lore, the festival will also feature reclusive Oscar-winner Michael Cimino ("The Deer Hunter") and a new director's cut of his epic Western "Heaven's Gate" -- one of the biggest movie flops of all time.
On a more contemporary note is Ibrahim El Batout's "Winter of Discontent" -- a feature film which was shot in part during last year's demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square that ultimately unseated veteran president Hosni Mubarak.
The film's protagonists are a political activist, a journalist and a state security officer whose lives entwine in the middle of the revolution.
Tunisian director Hinde Boujemaa will also bring to Venice her first film -- the documentary "It Was Better Tomorrow" about a woman struggling to change her life in the middle of the turmoil of the Tunisian revolution.
Among other women directors taking part in the festival will be Algeria's Djamila Sahraoui, Argentina's Jazmin Lopez and US-born Rama Burshtein.
Barbera said: "Maybe this is a sign that something is finally changing in the world of cinema, which as we all know is very sexist."