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Director Pedro Almodovar, from right, Penelope Cruz and Israel Elejalde pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Parallel Mothers' and the opening ceremony of the 78th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Wednesday, Sep, 1, 2021. Image Credit: Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

The Venice Film Festival opened in style on Wednesday with Penelope Cruz the first of many stars to grace the Lido’s red carpet, as cinephiles prepare for a spectacular line-up despite continued COVID restrictions.

Held on the glitzy, beach-lined Lido, the world’s oldest film festival is seen as an essential springboard for the Oscars, and is set to recover the glamour lost last year when the pandemic kept celebrities away.

Hollywood is back in full force, with eagerly awaited sci-fi blockbuster ‘Dune’ getting its world premiere on Friday, while Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — with or without new/old squeeze Jennifer Lopez — will be in town next week with ‘The Last Duel’.

Guests arrive for the opening ceremony and the screening of the film "Madres Paralelas" (Parallel Mothers) on the opening day of the 78th Venice Film Festival, on September 1, 2021 at Venice Lido. (Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP) Image Credit: AFP

But Venice can also boast the cream of the arthouse circuit, and opened with the latest from Spain’s beloved auteur Pedro Almodovar.

‘Parallel Lives’ sees him team with Cruz for a seventh time, though taking a surprisingly political turn with a drama touching on the missing victims of Spain’s civil war.

Cruz described Almodovar as “my safety net” at a press conference and thanked him for giving her “so many different, challenging characters”.

With strict anti-COVID measures in place, there were plenty of flashbulbs but no public for their trip down the red carpet.

Almodovar faces 20 other films competing for the Golden Lion, to be awarded on September 11 by a jury led by ‘Parasite’ director Bong Joon-ho.

Among the entries are the latest from celebrated auteurs including New Zealand’s Jane Campion with ‘The Power of the Dog’ and Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino with ‘The Hand of God’.

Both were produced by Netflix, which is hoping for another strong showing to match past success in Venice with ‘Roma’ and ‘Marriage Story’.

But the hottest ticket in town was undoubtedly ‘Spencer’, the Princess Diana biopic starring Kristen Stewart, due to premiere on Friday, with all showings sold out as soon as booking opened.

‘Cinema will continue’

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TOPSHOT - Italian actor and director, Roberto Benigni jokes as he poses for photographers after receiving a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement, following the the opening ceremony of the 78th Venice Film Festival, on September 1, 2021 at Venice Lido. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP) Image Credit: AFP

“Filmmakers had a very tough time this year and last year, but in a way, looking back on it, it feels this was a test and it showed the life force of cinema,” jury head Bong said at a press conference.

“As a filmmaker I don’t believe the history of cinema could be stopped so easily. So Covid will pass and cinema will continue,” he added.

The opening ceremony saw an honorary Golden Lion awarded to Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni, known for his 1997 Oscar winner ‘Life is Beautiful’.

The energetic 68-year-old declared himself “stunned” by a vibrant homage from Campion.

Venice has positioned itself as a vital launchpad for Hollywood films hoping to win Oscars five months later.

Recent Golden Lion winners ‘Nomadland’, ‘Joker’ and ‘Shape of Water’ have all gone to Academy Award glory.

Festival chief Alberto Barbera told AFP the difficult circumstances of the past year “served to stimulate the creativity of the directors.

“Many of the directors’ films are among their best,” he said. “This means that probably this edition will be one of the strongest of recent years.”