VENICE, Aug 29 (Reuters) - Politics, religion and personal crisis combine in "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," the opening movie at this year's Venice film festival, which examines what the 9/11 attacks mean for a young Asian man destined for a bright future on Wall Street.
Based on the novel by Pakistan-born writer Mohsin Hamid, it is directed by Indian Mira Nair, one of a large number of female filmmakers in Venice this year and a winner of the festival's coveted Golden Lion for best film with 2001's "Monsoon Wedding."
"The Reluctant Fundamentalist," which has its red carpet world premiere on Wednesday to launch the 2012 festival, is not eligible for awards because it screens outside the competition.
But organizers are hoping its themes of faith, alienation and radicalism will provide a provocative start to 11 days of films, interviews, press conferences, photo shoots and late-night parties on the Lido island, which is part of Venice.
"'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' gave me the platform to create a dialogue between the subcontinent and the West, over a schism that becomes more and more pronounced each day," Nair said of her new film.
She called it "a story about conflicting ideologies, instead of competing fists, where perception and suspicion have the power to determine life or death."
Venice, the world's oldest film festival, celebrates its 80th anniversary this year and welcomes back artistic director Alberto Barbera for another stint at the helm.
He takes over from the respected outgoing director Marco Mueller, and will have his work cut out to ensure that Venice remains one of the top three film festivals in the world amid growing competition from Toronto and beyond.
His competition lineup of 18 movies has won early praise from critics, and Venice has launched a small market to make the notoriously expensive trip to Venice more commercially attractive to movie studio bosses.
"I think all of us at the Biennale (festival) were aware of the fact that you change or die because the competition with other festivals is too strong," Barbera told Reuters. "They invested a lot in the last decade to renovate the structure of the festival, the scope of the festival and make sure Venice remained the same as it was 20 years ago."
LACK OF STARS?
The lack of A-list stars this year is a concern among some festivalgoers, although Barbera will hope that a new generation of up-and-coming acting talent, including Zac Efron, Shia LaBeouf and Selena Gomez, provides the kind of buzz on which festivals thrive.
The older generation will be represented by Robert Redford and Julie Christie, while Rachel McAdams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and the unpredictable Joaquin Phoenix also are expected.
One of the most talked-about movies this year is likely to be "The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson's story about a religious cult bearing similarities to Scientology.
The "There Will Be Blood" director has said the role of Lancaster Dodd, played by Hoffman, was partly inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.
The movie's distributor, The Weinstein Company, features a news report on its website calling "The Master" a "Scientology-tinged religious drama".
Yet both Anderson and company chief Harvey Weinstein have played down parallels with the self-described religion that counts Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its followers but has been cast by opponents as a cult that harasses people who seek to quit and coerces followers to think like they do.
Elsewhere, there will be plenty of on-screen sex with Brian De Palma's revenge thriller "Passion" working up an early head of steam through a racy trailer featuring McAdams and Noomi Rapace.
Terrence Malick, back on the European festival circuit a year after "The Tree of Life" won the Palme d'Or in Cannes, presents "To the Wonder," which has been given a film rating restricting it to adults due to scenes of nudity and sex.
Also in a slimmed-down main competition of 18 films is Marco Bellocchio's "Bella Addormentata" about Eluana Englaro, a woman left in a vegetative state by a car crash, who was at the center of a lengthy right-to-die case that divided opinion in Italy.
"Collateral" director Michael Mann leads the jury that decides who wins the Golden Lion. Last year the prize went to "Faust" by Russia's Alexander Sokurov.
Out of competition, Redford arrives with political action thriller "The Company You Keep," while Saudi Arabia's Haifaa al-Mansour says her movie "Wadjda," in the "Orizzonti" section, is the first feature to be shot entirely in the Kingdom.