As the Venice Film Festival gets under way, a look at the promising entries, the stories that are attracting controversy, and the most talked-about screenings.
The ones to watch
After a number of years when the Venice Film Festival has seemed to languish in a creative stupor, the 66th edition promises to offer some sort of Renaissance with a strong programme of movies that has critics and film fans rubbing their hands together in anticipation. The festival also looks set to -redeem the much-maligned -director Marco Müller. This year, he seems to have got the balance right between fostering new talent, bringing in art-house favourites to please the critics and luring the stars onto the Lido to add glamour. Any festival director worth his or her salt knows that nothing excites like a whiff of controversy, and the recent election in Iran seems set to provide that for Müller. Last week he announced a surprise screening of Hana Makhmalbaf's new film, Ruzhaye Sabz (Green Days), in a programme already heavy on Iranian talent. The film about the demonstrations that followed the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could well attract as many protests off screen as on. The film mixes documentary footage of the upheaval with a fictional tale aimed at giving a state-of-the-nation message about the lives of women in Iran. The hot subject matter led to the 21-year-old director's decision to edit the film in Italy in order to ensure that Iranian authorities do not stop the film from reaching the Lido. There is, of course, a precedent for this. In 2003, Babak Payami's Silence Between Two Thoughts was prevented from showing at the festival and the director Abolfazl Jalili was unable to attend the premiere of Abjad (The First Letter) when he was refused a travel visa to leave Iran. Makhmalbaf, the youngest member of the famous Iranian family of filmmakers, would only say that her much anticipated film is "a sociological film in which the camera works like a mirror to show you Iranian society undergoing a revolution, with all its hopes and doubts. I prefer not to explain this film as the people in it paint a clear picture of their situation and themselves". What is known is that the story concerns Ava, a depressed young Iranian woman. She sees past political incidents in Iran as the cause of her depression and she goes to the psychologist for treatment. The psychologist advises her to do some manual labour such as cleaning staircases and asks her to work on a play. However, her play, which is inspired by real-life events and the problems in her society, is banned. Suddenly, people come out on the streets. They decide to participate in the election to vote against the current president. But Ava still doesn't believe change will come. She starts to talk to people in the street, trying to regain her hopes. After a vacuum in output in the past few years, Iranian cinema is back in vogue at film festivals. The excellent Frontier Blues, directed by the London-based filmmaker Babak Jalali, made a strong impression at last month's Locarno International Film Festival. This month in Venice, one Venice Days section is an event called An Evening in Tehran showing shots by Iranian film students. There are also two Iranian films showing in International Critics' Week, Tehroun and The Pothole. Tehroun, directed by the French-born Nader T Homayoun, gets its title from the inner-city slang pronunciation of the Iranian capital. Shot on the streets of Tehran under restricted conditions, the picture offers a neorealist look at the city's underbelly, including drug dealers, corruption and crime. International Critics' Week will close with the world premier of Ali Karim's Chaleh (The Pothole) about a man who makes his living pulling cars out of a pothole in the road that he himself has made. The festival also features a number of films from Egypt, a territory rich in cinema heritage that looks like it might finally be pulling itself out of the cinematic doldrums it has recently found itself in. Competing for the Golden Lion is Al Mosafer (The Traveller), starring Omar Sharif. Directed by Ahmed Maher, the film pinpoints three crucial days in a man's life. Though the story is about family and relationships, the days occur in 1948, 1973 and 2001, three pivotal years in the Middle East's recent history. Screening out of competition is Ehky ya Schahrazad (Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story) by the award--winning director Yousry Nasrallah. In this be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale, an ambitious deputy editor on a newspaper convinces his wife, a television presenter, to stop talking about politics on her show. Trying to help her husband's career, she dedicates her programme to -women's issues, a subject that soon puts her at the centre of a political and social whirlwind. Kamla Abou Zekri's Wahed-Sefr (One-Zero) shows how sport can bring about harmony. Set on the night that Egypt won the African Nations Cup in 2008, it shows how the win affects the lives of its eight protagonists. Another film in contention for the top prize is Samuel Maoz's Lebanon. Set during the 1982 war in Lebanon, the film focuses on a group of Israeli soldiers stuck in a tank surrounded by Syrian commandos. Like Waltz with Bashir and Beaufort, the film is based on the recollections of a -director who, as a young man, found himself scared and fighting in a war in Lebanon that he didn't understand or want to fight. Müller has upped the star power at this year's festival, too. One man sure to please the paparazzi is George Clooney, whose new film The Men Who Stare at Goats also stars Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. There is good advance word on this black comedy inspired by a real-life story of a reporter who meets a shadowy figure who claims to be part of an experimental US military outfit. One event guaranteed to cause commotion is Capitalism, the new picture from the documentary polemist Michael Moore. Perfectly tuned to the Zeitgeist, it promises to expose the murky deals that keep the world economy afloat. It's a sure bet that the usual arguments and counter-arguments that follow his films will be flowing as soon as the end credits roll. Richard Gere, Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawke appear in the Training Day director Antoine Fuqua's Brooklyn's Finest. Fuqua typically goes for style over substance so it will be interesting to see if there is a bit more character development in his tale of unhappy cops fighting their own -demons rather than crime. The maverick and fast-shooting American director Steven Soderbergh's second film of the year, The Informant!, will also screen. The film about a whistle-blower (Matt Damon) who exposes a multinational price-fixing conspiracy to the FBI marks a return to the director's more typical big, brash Hollywood movies after his art-led project The Girlfriend Experience. The twist comes when the informant is revealed to be less clean-cut than he initially paints himself to be. The biggest curiosity of the festival is bound to be Werner Herzog's remake of Abel Ferrara's engrossing Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage in the Harvey Keitel role. Ferrara was not happy when he heard that his best film was being remade and the action transported from his hometown of New York to New Orleans, but one suspects that the wily German auteur Herzog would not have taken the director's chair unless he felt that he could pull off a major surprise. It would be great if Ferrara turned up to the premier - he's in town anyway presenting his ode to Naples, Italy, Napoli Napoli Napoli. A verbal battle between these two directors would certainly liven up the lagoon. Tom Ford, the fashion director and former Gucci head, makes his film directing debut with an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel, A Single Man, starring Colin Firth. It's a sure bet that everyone will be saving their best frocks for this red carpet walk. In Claire Denis's White Material, Isabelle Huppert plays a French woman who refuses to move out of her African home and abandon her harvest, despite the threat of war and the sounds of gunfire. (Huppert was the head of the jury at Cannes, which might explain why this tale is showing here rather than on the French Riviera.) Denis is one of several French directors with a chance of picking up the Golden Lion. Her competition comes from Patrice Chereau (Persecution starring Romain Duris and Charlotte Gainsbourg), Jacque Rivettes (36 Vues Du Pic Saint-Loup starring Gainsbourg's mother, Jane Birkin) and Jaco Van Dormael (his much-anticipated futuristic sci-fi adventure Mr Nobody stars Jared Leto, Sarah Polley and Diane Kruger). There are also two American sequels competing for the top prize. George Romero is back with yet another zombie movie, Survival of the Dead, proving that there really is no killing those monsters. And Todd Solondz has made a sequel, of sorts, to his hit Happiness called Life During Wartime. How the director intends to top his best work is one of the big unknowns of the festival. However, the most anticipated film of the festival is undoubtedly John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The apocalyptic novel is one of those books that is frequently labelled as impossible to adapt. Featuring a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Garret -Dillahunt) who hardly talk to each other, it's full of graphic descriptions of nothingness and devastation. But the fact that Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Robert Duvall and Molly Parker are on the cast list suggests that the smaller characters will be given a little more prominence. The big question is whether Hillcoat can bring to screen anything more than what McCarthy left to the imagination. As for Müller, his programme at least seems to have answered his detractors.