Venice (AFP) - A glittering array of A-listers swept up the red carpet as the Venice film festival opened in a flurry celebrity Wednesday, but the 11-day celebration of cinema is battling scandal over the inclusion of director Roman Polanski.
The festival, which has become the launchpad for the Oscar race, has a host of Hollywood heavyweights in a line-up including Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Kristen Stewart, Meryl Streep and Scarlett Johansson.
But as stars arrived for the gala launch, the world's oldest film festival was already embroiled in controversy.
Venice, facing criticism for having just two films directed by women out of 21 in the running for its top prize, has sparked further fury with the films it has chosen.
Campaigners have accused the festival of being out of touch in the era of #MeToo by including Polanski. It is also presenting a new film in a sidebar event from director Nate Parker, who was embroiled in a rape trial while still at university.
Festival director Alberto Barbera defended his decision to include Polanski, calling him "one of the last masters still active in European cinema", at an opening press conference for the festival dominated by the issue.
He "never had doubts" about including Polanski's film, he said, adding "we have to distinguish between the art and the man" when judging the works of the filmmaker, who was convicted for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old in 1978.
But Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, president of the judging panel for this year's Golden Lion top award, said the inclusion of Polanski had made her "uncomfortable", adding she would not attend the official celebration for his film.
Martel later released a statement through the festival saying that she had been misunderstood and stressed that she was not against the film being in competition.
"I have no prejudice against the film and naturally I will watch it in the same way as all other films in competition," she said.
- Starry selection -
The 76th Venice festival opened with the premier of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's "The Truth", with French stars Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, about an actress whose decision to publish her memoirs prompts a mother-daughter reunion which turns fiery.
Binoche arrived for the screening wearing a sweeping pastel gown, accompanied on the red carpet by Deneuve in a vampy orange high-collar jacket.
The festival's blockbuster centrepiece is likely to be the new DC Comics "The Joker" starring Joaquin Phoenix, which traces the origins of Batman's nemesis
Trailers for the film have already been viewed more than 80 million times.
Among the other potential Oscar hopefuls at the festival, US director Steven Soderbergh's take on the Panama Papers investigation, "The Laundromat", is set to premier, while Brad Pitt plays an astronaut in James Gray's highly anticipated sci-fi drama "Ad Astra".
Saudi Arabia's Haifaa al-Mansour, the maker of the acclaimed "Wadjda", is one of the two women directors vying for the top prize.
Her film "The Perfect Candidate" tells the story of a doctor trying to become her town's first female candidate in elections in the conservative kingdom.
Newcomer Shannon Murphy is the other female contender, with her Australian comedy-drama "Babyteeth".
- Polanski divisions -
Barbera, who is credited with revitalising the festival -- first held in 1932 -- stressed that half the members of the selection panel for this year's films were women, adding "there was no prejudice on our behalf".
Polanski's historical thriller about the persecution of the French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus, "An Officer and a Spy", is due to premier Friday.
The 86-year-old, who is suing the Academy of Motion Pictures for stripping him of his membership, will not appear in Venice, representatives for the film told AFP.
Deneuve has often defended the director, saying in a recent interview with AFP that the criticisms of him were "totally excessive". "Time has passed," she added.
Meanwhile, Spike Lee has said he will travel to Venice to support Parker, whose film "American Skin" tells the story of a Marine veteran whose son is killed by police.
Parker 2016 debut film about a slave revolt, "The Birth of a Nation", was derailed after it emerged that he was accused of raping a fellow student, who later killed herself.
Parker was acquitted, but he later said, "I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom."
The festival opens as the accusations that sparked America's #MeToo movement are back in the spotlight.
Harvey Weinstein, once one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, pleaded not guilty to two new charges of sexual predatory assault Monday, as a judge postponed his trial to 2020.