'Vigor,' glam help kick off Venice Film Festival


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VENICE, Italy -- The 64th annual Venice Film Festival got under way Wednesday as massive crowds gathered under cloudy skies at the edge of the red carpet and the world premiere of Joe Wright's "Atonement" received a strong reception.

The film's star, Keira Knightley, was the darling of the red carpet, with a scrum of photographers eagerly snapping photos of the actress, who was dressed in a long, pale peach dress with sparkling stars across her hair.

Read our 'Atonement' review

Knightley signed autographs for 10 minutes before entering Venice's Palazzo del Cinema for the opening ceremony. She was joined by Wright and co-stars James McAvoy and Vanessa Redgrave, and the foursome was greeted by enthusiastic applause as they entered the building.

Inside, the presentations turned to the storied history of the Venice festival, which runs through Sept. 8.

Although this is the 64th edition of the festival, it is the 75th anniversary of the first event, which took place in the lawn of the Lido's nearby Hotel Excelsior in 1932, and presenters used the occasion to look back at the past three quarters of a century.

"The festival has a renewed vigor," Venice Biennale president Davide Croff said. "The festival is fresher, stronger and more international than ever before."

This year's edition might prove to be the swan song for both the aging Palazzo del Cinema and Venice artistic director Marco Mueller.

The long-awaited reconstruction of the crumbling Palazzo is expected to start this year, though a start date has not been set. A complete face-lift is expected to take three years, and Venice will have to make do with temporary quarters during that time.

The ticking clock on the old Palazzo is symbolized this year by a 15-foot-tall wrecking ball protruding from the front wall of the building, with bricks and smoke artistically spilling from the hole it created. The ball -- with the number "75" flashed across its surface in lights -- will remain for the entire festival.

The reconstruction process has long been a goal for Mueller, who is in the last year of his mandate. Mueller and other Venice officials are coy about their plans, noting that an official decision will not be made until year's end and that his tenure might be extended.

Two-time Golden Lion-winning director Zhang Yimou -- the head of the main jury this year -- alluded to the questions about Mueller's tenure in his Chinese-language comments, which were translated for the crowd by Mueller.

"It is with great exaltation that I think about a festival that has survived 75 years," Zhang said. "And as I think forward and wonder what will happen to the Venice Film Festival over the next 75 years, the only thing I can say for certain is that, by then, Marco Mueller will no longer be the artistic director."

The comment drew applause and laughter.

The other members of the main jury -- helmers Jane Campion, Paul Verhoeven, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Ferzan Ozpetek and Emanuele Crialese -- were introduced to the crowd in the packed Palazzo along with the members of the juries for the main two sidebars.

If this festival is indeed Mueller's last, it will be a memorable curtain call. For the second consecutive year, the entire 22-film competition lineup will be made up of world premieres, and the Italian press has speculated that the overall program might be among the best ever presented at Venice.