The embarrassing absence ofboth Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodovar from this year's secondMarrakech International Film Festival stole much of the limelight away from anotherwise glittering event where an outdoor public screening of David Lynch'ssexually-charged Mulholland Drivefurther raised the temperature in this Islamic hot zone.

On the eve of King MohammedVI presenting Scorsese with Morocco's highest order of merit, making hima Commander of the Order of Ouissam Alaouite, the monarch received a letter from the NewYork filmmaker regretting his inability to attend due to pressures from hisproducers to finish work on Miramax Films' Gangs Of New York.

As far as is known, Scorsese'saward still stands even though it now looks as if Scorsese may now also haveabandoned his Alexander The Greatepic that was due to shoot in Morocco with the King chipping in with 500soldiers of his own as extras.

Sources here suggest thatBaz Luhrmann's own competing Alexander project, also with LeonardoDiCaprio attached, is now the firm favourite to start shooting in Marrakech onthe site of what is billed as the world's single largest backlot. OliverStone has also been preparing his own Alexander biopic, but with China hispreferred location and Colin Farrell his lead actor.

It Scorsese'slast-minute no-show from the French-organised Marrakech festival wasn'tbad enough, the Spanish media were having a field day over Almodovar'sown decision not to attend in spite of being honoured with a tribute.

In a letter publishedTuesday in the Spanish daily La Vanguardia, well-known French-Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jalloun accused Almodovarof acquiescing to "political and media pressure" in declining theinvitation. "With your refusal to accept the Morocco tribute youtransform yourself into the accomplice of a colonizing State which cultivatesamnesia about its Jewish-Muslim, Arab-Andalusian roots... It is unworthy ofyour talent."

Ben Jalloun's letteralso made reference to the July clash between the Spanish and Moroccangovernments for control over an uninhabitable Mediterranean rock called ParsleyIsland, as well as to Ceuta and Melilla, Spain's controversial holdingsin North Africa.

Almodovar shot back in aletter published Thursday in Spanish newspapers, calling the accusations"absurd, stupid, insulting, unreal and unfair", the stuff of"a bad joke."

"My decision not togo... was made only by me, according to my agenda and my professional andpersonal circumstances, without external mediation of any kind",Almodovar wrote, adding that he had recently turned down similar invitations toscreen his latest film, Talk To Her(Hable Con Ella), at suchfestivals as Telluride, Toronto, Jerusalem, Iceland and Rio.

For all the surroundingcontroversy, the Marrakech event itself kicked off in high-style on Thursday with a sumptuous courtyard feast in the Royal Palacethat was attended by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch, MattDillon, Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Kassovitz, PatriceChereau, Constantin Costa-Gavras, Benoit Jacquot, Anne Parillaud, ElodieBouchez, Marie-Christine Barrault, and Jeanne Moreau.

Moreau, named president of aJury that also included Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang and local directorNabil Ayouch among others, presented Coppola with the Star of Marrakech.

By most accounts thehighpoint of the event so far was the public outdoor screening of MulhollandDrive. Its steamy lesbian sex sceneleft many among the female festival attendees wondering why they had botheredworrying whether their ball-gowns would be deemed respectable enough if theirankles were entirely concealed.

Lynch, however, tookeverything in his stride. He told ScreenDaily he was "delighted to have the opportunity ofscreening his film in the country, and that the festival was able to make allsorts of films available to different cultures and for all the rightreasons."

Although officially underthe auspices of the Moroccan cinephile king and hisson Prince Moulay Rachid, the Marrakech festival is in many aspects avery French affair, with French industry figurehead DanielToscan du Plantier as its organizing executive producer and a visitingdelegation of as many as 300 French executives andtalents. The films themselves were screened with French sub-titles.

But beneath thefestival's idealistic desire to promote cultural exchange between nationslies also a commercial subtext for Morocco. The country hopes that thefestival's international prominence, taken together with the growingnumber of films such as The Mummy that have been using Morocco as a cheap location backdrop, willincrease tourist traffic by an annual 10 million people.

As it is, theancient southern city of Marrakech, which lies within sight of the snow-peakedAtlas Mountains, is currently abuzz with production scouts. Other thanLuhrmann's Alexander, films due to shoot in the region include: Paul Shrader's TheExorcist: The Beginning,the Morgan Creek-producedprequel to the horror classic that stars Stellan Skarsgard; Joe Johnston's Hidalgo, being produced by Casey Silver for Disney; Ridley Scott's bigbudget historical drama Tripoli for 20th Century Fox; and now Warner Bros' Troy starring Brad Pitt as Homeric heroAchilles in Wolfgang Petersen's version of the Iliad

Tripoli, to which both Russell Crowe and Sir BenKingsley are attached, has temporarily halted pre-production. That process thatwill resume next June with a view to a shooting start in February 2004.

Films in Competition:

Balzac & The SmallChinese Tailoress (dir: DaïSijie) China
America So Beautiful (dir: BabackShokrian) US
The Clay Bird (dir: Tarek Masud)Bangladesh
The Marriage Of Rana (dir: HanyAbu-Assad) Palestine
Beyond Gibraltar (dirs: Mourad Boucif & Taylan Barman)Belgium/Morocco/Turkey
The City Of God (dir: FernandoMeirelles) Brazil
Devils (dir: Christophe Ruggia) France
And After... (dir: MohamedIsmail) Morocco
Bend It Like Beckham (dir:Gurinder Chadha) UK
Go (dir: Isao Yukisada) Japan

JENNIFER GREEN in Madrid contributed to this report