File photo of actress Cate Blanchett at Venice Film Festival Image Credit: AFP

It starts with a boat ride in, and for the lucky few, ends with a kiss on the side of the trophy.

The Venice Film Festival is an early stop for many stars and filmmakers on the path to the Academy Awards. In normal years, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Scarlett Johansson, Lady Gaga and more actors would converge on Lido to the snap of camera shutters and cheers from fans.

This, of course, is not a normal year. The photographers will be fewer in numbers and the fans will be gone. Many top actors are staying away too, leaving the Venice festival as a smaller, more European cinema gathering.

Even that is an achievement.

Italy was among the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic — it has Europe’s second-highest confirmed coronavirus death toll after Britain with over 35,400 deaths. The festival, running September 2-12, will serve as a celebration of its re-opening and a sign that the film world, largely on pause since March, is coming back as well.

Despite virus precautions, some Venice mainstays will continue. Water taxis will deliver stars to press conferences and photo calls, where in years past actors like Ralph Fiennes have been compelled to dance and Johnny Depp gave giddy photographers a close-up shot.

The red carpet will be rolled out and the Lido will once again play host to flashy premieres. At the end of it all, some actors and filmmakers will earn trophies.

Whether they decide to kiss the cup remains to be seen. Meanwhile, here’s a look at the 18 films chasing top prize at Venice Film Festival:

Le Sorelle Macaluso’ (The Macaluso Sisters)

Le Sorelle Macaluso
Le Sorelle Macaluso Image Credit: Supplied

Italy — Five sisters in Palermo reminisce, quibble and recount secrets as they reunite at a family funeral in Emma Dante’s film.

‘The World to Come’: US

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The World to Come Image Credit: Supplied

In Mona Fastwold’s upstate 19th century New York, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) tends a farm with her husband (Casey Affleck) but falls in love with a neighbour.

‘Nuevo Orden’ (New Order): Mexico/France

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Nuevo Orden Image Credit: Supplied

A dystopian film from Michel Franco depicts social and economic disparity in Mexico, as a well-to-do family seeks to escape the chaos of daily life.

‘Amants’ (Lovers): France — Nicole Garcia’s film tells the story of Lisa and Simon, lovers who paths cross again three years after Simon fled Paris.

‘Laila in Haifa’: Israel/France — Five women’s stories interweave in the course of one night at a Haifa club. As one of the few spaces where Israelis and Palestinians can mingle, director Amos Gitai turns the venue itself into a protagonist.

‘Dorogie Tovarischi!’ (Dear Comrades!): Russia

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Dorogie Tovarischi!’ (Dear Comrades!) Image Credit: Supplied

Based on the true story of a 1962 labour strike in Novocherkassk, USSR, in which 26 protesters were shot by Soviet troops. Andrei Konchalosky’s film retells events kept secret until the 1990s.

‘Spy No Tsuma’ (Wife of a Spy): Japan

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Against the backdrop of a looming World War II and the invasion of Manchuria, a wife’s love for her Kobe merchant husband is tested when another woman enters the picture in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film.

‘Khorshid’ (Sun Children): Iran

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Sun Children Image Credit: Supplied

Ali and his friends work small jobs and hustle to support their families. Majid Majidi’s film explores what happens when Ali learns of an underground treasure.

‘Pieces of a Woman’ : Canada/Hungary

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Pieces of a Woman Image Credit: Supplied

Martha and Sean (Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf) are a Boston couple whose baby dies during a home birth. Director Kornel Mundruczo shows how grieving Martha navigates her relationships with her husband and mother (Ellen Burstyn), while facing the midwife (Molly Parker) in court.

‘Miss Marx’: Italy/Belgium

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Miss Marx Image Credit: Supplied

Susanna Nicchiarelli tells the story of Eleanor, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx, who battled for the rights of workers and women and the abolition of child labour.

‘Padrenostro’: Italy

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Padrenostro Image Credit: Supplied

The life of 10-year-old Valerio is turned upside down when he and his mother witness a terrorist attack against his father. But director Claudio Noce explores how a chance encounter with a rebellious boy changes their lives.

‘Notturno’: Italy/France/Germany

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Notturno Image Credit: Supplied

Shot over three years on the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary follows people trying to cobble together an existence despite the violence around them.

‘Sniegu Juz Nigby Nie Bedzie’ (Never Gonna Snow Again)

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Never Gonna Snow Again Image Credit: Supplied

Poland/Germany — A mysterious masseur from Ukraine, Zhenia becomes a guru for a spiritually barren gated community in this film by Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert.

‘The Disciple’: India

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The Disciple Image Credit: Supplied

Director Chaitanya Tamhane tells the story of Sharad, chasing his dream of becoming an Indian classical vocalist amid the chaos of life in the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai.

‘Und Morgen die Ganze Welt’ (And Tomorrow the Entire World): Germany/France

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‘Und Morgen die Ganze Welt’ Image Credit: Supplied

In Julia von Heinz’s film, Luisa and her anti-fascist group question how far they’re willing to go to battle hatred after a wave of racist attacks strikes Germany.

‘Quo vadis, Aida?’: Bosnia-Herzegovina

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Quo vadis, Aida Image Credit: Supplied

Based on true events in 1995 Bosnia. Aida is a translator in Srebrenica working for United Nations peacekeepers. When the Bosnian Serb army invades, she and thousands of others seek safety in the Dutch UN camp in Jasmila Zbanic’s film.

‘Nomadland’: US

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Nomadland Image Credit: Supplied

Director Chloe Zhao tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), who sets off from her impoverished Nevada town in her van to scratch out a living as a modern-day nomad.

‘In Between Dying’: Azerbaijan/US

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In Between Dying Image Credit: Supplied

Davud is a restless young man on a journey of self-discovery through Hilal Baydarov’s film, keeping ahead of men pursuing him. When his journey ends at home, Davud finds the love he’s seeking — but is it too late?