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Venice film fest on a roll with Oscar-lucky openers

veniceVENICE--The Venice Film Festival is having a good run with opening films winning Oscars, including best picture last year for "Birdman", and hopes to stay on a winning streak when the mountain disaster film "Everest" kicks off the 72nd edition on Wednesday.

"Everest" is directed by the relatively unknown Baltasar Kormakur from Iceland but boasts an all-star cast, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley and Josh Brolin re-enacting a real-life disaster that befell several expeditions on the world's highest mountain in 1996 -- filmed in 3D to boot.

It is not competing for the "Lion d'Or" top prize, but it is just the kind of film that Alberto Barbera, the festival's director, is looking for as an opener -- having scored a hit not only with "Birdman" but also with the space thriller "Gravity" the year before.

"The most difficult thing is to identify the film for the opening night because it's a sort of a special category of film," Barbera told Reuters in an interview. "It has to be spectacular enough, not too violent because the audience of the opening night is different from the rest of the festival.

"It's made of guests, representatives of the public institutions, authorities, whatever, not cinephiles, so you have to find a mix of elements that combine the many expectations of the audience," he said.

Barbera is proud not only of grabbing "Everest", showing out of competition, but also for luring a raft of prestigious films, directors and actors for a festival that in some film circles, before Barbera took the reins a few years ago, was said to be sinking into the lagoon, with the rest of Venice.

Some of the top movies in the competition strand include Eddie Redmayne playing the title role in the transgender film "The Danish Girl", Israeli director Amos Gitai's biopic on Yitzhak Rabin, "Rabin, the Last Day", and "Beasts of No Nation", which stars Idris Elba ("Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom") and is based on a novel about a child soldier in Africa.

Out of competition, the festival will host the premiere of "Black Mass", with Johnny Depp portraying the Irish-American gangster Whitey Bulger, and "Spotlight", starring Michael Keaton as an editor involved in the Boston Globe's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation of paedophile priests serving in the Roman Catholic church in Boston.

"Venice has been doing a really good job in the last couple of years of focusing the lineup," said Scott Roxborough, a European-based critic and reporter for The Hollywood Reporter trade publication. "It's not as big as the Toronto Film Festival, and it doesn't have the sort of aura of Cannes or Berlin, which are just massive. Venice is much more limited...but they do a good job of balancing a handful of films that will be interesting later in the year for Oscar nominations."

There are 21 films in the main competition strand this year, and the prizes will be awarded on Sept. 12.

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