At a time when the usefulness of film festivals is becoming a topic of hot debate, Venice has a chance to blow everyone's socks off.

The 60th running of the festival gets underway today with a screening of Woody Allen's Anything Else and continues with a line-up that is both starry and culturally refined - at least that is what it looks like on paper. The proof of course will be in the screening.

Competition highlights include British director Michael Winterbottom's bid -with Code 46 - to become the first person to win Berlin's Golden Bear and Venice's Golden Lion in the same year. Beautifully mannered French director Bruno Dumont is to take the wraps off his sexually charged US-set thriller Twentynine Palms, while white-hot Mexican stylist Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu will unwrap 21 Grams, three inter-cut stories involving Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro. Both the Dumont and Gonzales Inarritu films are English-language debuts. Already provoking festivals and sharp-sighted art-house distributors into competition with each other is The Return, a first time feature about two brothers and their prodigal father.

In the parallel competition section Upstream or Controcorrente is a slightly more avant-garde group which includes Travellers And Magicians by Khyentse Norbu, the Tibetan monk who previously made The Cup, Daniele Cipri and Franco Maresco's time-warped drama The Return Of The Cagliostro (Il Ritorno Di Cagliostro) and Mud (Camur) by Turkey's Dervis Zaim.

Out of competition are a number of showcase features with the kind of big names which get the photographers salivating: One Upon A Time In Mexico Salma Hayek and Johnny Depp will be in town), The Human Stain (Nicole Kidman, Anthony Hopkins), Imagining Argentina (Antonio Banderas, Emma Thompson) and the Coen brothers not-quite-finished Intolerable Cruelty (George Clooney, Catherine Zeta Jones).

The festival this year pays tribute through special prizes to Omar Sharif (who stars in Monsieur Ibrahim Et Les Fleurs Du Coran) and veteran Italian producer Dino Di Laurentiis.

Away from the cut and thrust of competition Venice has enlarged its market functions and added new industry facilities. According to market chief Laura Marcellino there should be close on 100 screenings and some 50 films in the "Venice Screenings". About half are titles attracted by the market alone and half are drawn from various other sections of the festival. About half are non-Italian sourced, another increase on last year.

The festival is also expecting to roll out the red carpet for the regular migratory stream of visiting politicians and diplomats. MPA chief Jack Valenti makes Venice a regular stop-over. He should have a chance to meet with EU Culture Commissioner Viviane Reding and more than a dozen ministers who are attending a four-day (28-31 Aug) meeting hosted by the Italian ministry of culture as part of Italy's rotating EU presidency.

The ministers are also expected to take advantage to sign a series of bi-lateral co-production treaties with the UK, Spain and India.