The 69th edition of the Venice Film Festival starts inspite of the construction chaos at the site

The site is dominated by a large excavation, covered temporarily by plastic sheeting, scarcely an attractive backdrop for the opening of the Venice International Film Festival on Wednesday.

Just a few metres away, the stars will be stepping onto the red carpet for the 69th edition of the world’s oldest film festival, but the construction chaos has not deterred the Italian director of the festival, Alberto Barbera.

Mr. Barbera has returned to take control this year after an absence of some 10 years and intends to push through a string of changes. The excavation represents just one of the construction sites. But some of the changes will be evident this year.

Eighteen films are competing for the Golden Lion, the top award, at a festival that traces its roots back to 1932 and is this year celebrating its 80th anniversary, although there have been interruptions in its long history.

The passage of the years has left its mark. The buildings are showing their age and the cinemas are thought no longer able to cope with the demands placed on them.

“Venice, which has evolved least by comparison with other festivals, is facing thorough change,” Mr. Barbera, who previously ran the festival for three years from 1998, said.

Apart from the structural changes, this year there will for the first time be a film market, a novelty on the Lido but seen as essential for the dealings required in this expensive business.

Mr. Barbera’s reforms can also be seen in the competition, in which European films dominate. The number of films competing for the jury’s favour has been cut back, and most of the films are by directors represented for the first time in Venice.

One of them is Ramin Bahrani, characterized by top US critic Roger Ebert as the “new great American director.” Mr. Bahrani will be showing At Any Price, a drama about a farmer and his conflict with his family, following previous films about social outsiders. He has engaged the acting services of the likes of Zac Efron, Dennis Quaid and Heather Graham.

Another newcomer is the Californian Harmony Korine, who has made a name for himself on the independent scene as the screenwriter of Kids and will be showing Spring Breakers starring James Franco, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens.

After the stringent criticism of the Cannes Film Festival, where an all-male line-up competed for the main prize, Mr. Barbera has invited four female directors to compete - in itself unusual given the festival’s history.

Indian director Mira Nair will be opening the festival with her political drama The Reluctant Fundamentalist, starring Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland, although the film is not part of the competition.

Nevertheless it is once again older men who are drawing much of the attention. Other films not in the competition line-up are the new offering from 103-year-old Manoel de Oliveira, with Claudia Cardinale, and Robert Redford’s Thriller about an environmental activist starring Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte.

Older male directors are also prominent in the competition for the Golden Lion, including 71-year-old Brian De Palma (Mission: Impossible, Scarface), who has Karoline Herfurth, Millennium star Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams in his Franco-German production Passion.

Austrian director Ulrich Seidl places a woman driven by religious missionary zeal at the centre of Paradies: Glaube (Paradise: Faith).

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master about a self-appointed guru, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, with Javier Bardem and Ben Affleck are being watched with keen anticipation.

Mr. Malick’s new film is being shown after his Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, although it is only his sixth film in a career spanning almost 40 years. The US director is rarely seen in public and in all probability will not be seen in Venice.