French, Korean, US films tipped to win Venice festival

French director Olivier Assayas charmed audiences with "Apres mai" ("Something in the Air") -- a coming of age story about a group of youngsters preparing for adult life during years of heady idealism in the early 1970s.

Assayas, whose last work "Carlos" was an award-winning drama about the militant killer Carlos the Jackal, told AFP he wanted to portray a time when there was "faith in the future, in the possibility of transforming society."

The contrast in style could not be greater with "Pieta" by South Korea's Kim Ki-duk, who tells a bleak tale about a brutal loan shark struggling for redemption in a gut-wrenching condemnation of money-grabbing capitalism.

The pony-tailed Kim said in an interview at the Excelsior Hotel that his film was a realisation of his youthful dreams of becoming a preacher, adding: "I believe audiences who see this film will question capitalist society."

Strong performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" also wowed critics in this film inspired by the early years of the Scientology movement of L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s.

Phoenix, who snubbed a press conference by refusing to answer questions and smoking a cigarette instead, is the hot favourite for the best actor prize for his feral role as the troubled disciple to Hoffman's charismatic leader.

The world's oldest film festival has brought Hollywood veterans like Robert Redford and new stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens as well as art house auteurs from around the globe to the seaside resort of the Venice Lido.

A total of 18 films are competing at the festival, including the eagerly awaited "To the wonder" by Terrence Malick which however disappointed many critics despite its complex visual story of love in its many forms.

The choices of a nine-person jury led by veteran US director and producer Michael Mann are due to be announced in a ceremony starting at 1700 GMT.

Critics say a new film from the Philippines, "Sinapupunan" ("Thy Womb") by Brillante Mendoza has an outside chance to clinch the prize.

Mendoza won the award for best director at Cannes in 2009 for his "Kinatay" ("Butchered") about the fallout from a brutal gang killing.

"Sinapupunan" is set in a traditional fishing community in the troubled Muslim region of Mindanao and tells the story of a woman who cannot conceive and sets out to help her husband find a second wife who can give him a child.

Mendoza told AFP in an interview that he wanted to show a "really different" side to the region which he said had "an amazing culture," adding that film was for him "a very rare opportunity to change the mindset of people."

Italian critics have also heaped praised on Marco Bellocchio's "Bella Addormentata" ("Dormant Beauty") -- a nuanced interpretation of the emotions surrounding a high-profile euthanasia case in 2009 that divided Italy.

A first-time feature by Rama Burshtein, an Orthodox Hasidic director from Israel, impressed critics with its sensitive and beautifully-shot story of an emotional young girl preparing for marriage in a deeply traditional community.

The festival has featured dozens more films, including several new talents from an Arab world in upheaval and a strong focus on the social and moral fallout from the economic crisis sweeping Europe and the United States.