The 48th edition of the San Sebastian International Film Festival got off to a halting start on Thursday night with the cancellation of the traditional party as a protest against the latest assassination by Basque terrorist group ETA.

But the opening film of the festival's Official Section, the much-anticipated Common Wealth (La Comunidad) from Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia, was enthusiastically received. Encapsulating the mixture of feelings, Stephen Frears, president of the festival's official jury, addressed the crowd in the Basque language on Thursday night with the poignant statement: "Come to the cinema because cinema is life."

Outgoing festival director Diego Galan and incoming director Mikel Olaciregui have played down fears that a recent rash of bombings by ETA could cast a pall over this year's event. The festival withstands at least one non-violent outburst by pro-ETA supporters nearly every year, but Galan insists that the festival has never been the target of any ETA action.

Indeed, the festival - which runs from September 21 through 30 - has seen an excellent turn-out this year. More than 20 countries are represented by the films in this year's Official and Zabaltegi (Open Zone) sections. Fifteen films are competing for the top Golden and Silver Shell Awards and another 22 compete for the New Directors' Award.

A nation-wide anti-ETA march is scheduled to take place on Saturday afternoon in downtown San Sebastian. Figures from the film world, such as Pedro Almodovar, are expected to participate in the demonstration.