ROME - The oldest film festival in the world is going big on nail-biters this year with thrillers dominating the race for Venice's coveted Golden Lion award, organisers said on July 27.
Stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda are expected to be among the A-listers spotted posing on the red carpet or hopping into gondolas at the gala's 74th edition next month.
The festival, a key launchpad for heavyweight Oscar contenders, has gone big on US flicks in particular this year. Hollywood heavyweight Ethan Hawke will star in director Paul Schrader's First Reformed, a spine-chiller about members of a church who are tormented by the deaths of loved ones - and harbouring a dark secret.
It goes up against hotly awaited Mother! by Darren Aronofsky, the US director behind the 2010 psychological horror film Black Swan. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, the film tells the tale of a couple thrown into turmoil by uninvited guests.
"(Distributor) Paramount was very much in doubt over whether to present the film at a festival in order not to make any spoilers," festival director Alberto Barbera told a news conference in Rome.
Britain's Martin McDonaugh - best known for 2008 black comedy In Bruges - will hope to suitably unnerve the jury with thriller Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Frances McDormand stars as a middle-aged mother who challenges police after her daughter is murdered but no killer is found.
It is not all white-knuckle suspense: the beachside festival on the Lido island, which runs from July 30 to August 9, will kick off on a lighter tone with a shrunken Matt Damon. Alexander Payne's Downsizing, a satire about a couple who decide to shrink themselves to four inches tall, also stars Kristen Wiig and Christoph Waltz.
Other hotly anticipated entries are Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape Of Water and Human Flow, a documentary about the global refugee crisis by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei.
Barbera said he was "very satisfied" with the line-up. "There are only maybe two or three films that we...wanted to have for the festival and we couldn't," he said.
Damon reappears in Suburbicon, a dark comedy directed by George Clooney that also stars Julianne Moore.
Moviemakers will be hoping for a replay of the success of films such as La La Land, Gravity and Birdman which went from Venice launches to Academy Awards glory.
The world's oldest film festival will also stage what organisers say is the first virtual reality competition at a major cinema event.
Outside of the competition, Stephen Frears will present Victoria And Abdul, his latest work on the British monarchy, with Judi Dench as the 19th-century queen.
Director James Toback brings together Sienna Miller and Alec Baldwin in independent drama The Private Life Of A Modern Woman, and Spanish power couple Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz appear in Loving Pablo by Fernando Leon de Aranoa.
A Lifetime Achievement Award will be picked up by Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, who will also present their new film Our Souls At Night, directed by Ritesh Batra. American Beauty star Annette Bening heads the jury for the festival.