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Sex and scandal top Venice Film Festival

Hollywood's hottest stars may hog the red carpet when Venice kicks off its 60th film festival this week, but sex and controversy could steal the show, according to the director of the competition.

"There's a strong theme which I wouldn't like to mention too much, which is sex. There are a lot of very explicit statements or scenes," veteran festival director Moritz de Hadeln confessed during an interview overlooking the Lido's long stretch of beach.

"But everything is justified providing it has the artistic quality," he quickly added.

A series of tough films tackling religion and relations in the Middle East will fuel debate.

The world's oldest cinema competition will start off on a light note with Woody Allen's new comedy Anything Else . Allen, a long-time visitor to the lagoon city, will put in his first appearance at Venice's festival.

But laughs could soon turn to gasps when the curtain goes up on Bernardo Bertolucci's new erotic feature The Dreamers , a story about sexual awakening in France in 1968. With its young protagonists and suggestive poster, critics are already comparing it to his steamy 1972 film Last Tango in Paris .

"There is already the beginning of controversy over the Bertolucci film," de Hadeln said, standing on the balcony of the Art Deco theater where more than 140 films will screen before September 6, 20 of them vying for the coveted Golden Lion award.

French director Bruno Dumont could up the shock factor with his latest film Twentynine Palms about a "primitive" love affair in the Californian desert. His previous L'Humanite began with a shot of an 11-year-old murder and rape victim.

Sex won't be the only touchy subject as Venice grapples with anti-Islamic sentiment in the wake of the Iraq war.

"The fact is that the war in Iraq brought up some pretty nasty statements and ignorance about what Islam is really all about," said de Hadeln, who headed the Berlin film competition for 22 years.

"We're not here to school people, but if there are films treating this subject directly or indirectly I wanted to show them."

Among those on display will be two Iranian movies, an Algerian film and a Lebanese production as well as a new feature by Israel's Amos Gitai.

French director Jacques Doillon dives into the controversy with Raja , about a Moroccan immigrant in France, and even the Serbian entry Loving Glances is a kind of Romeo and Juliet in which religion and ethnicity are the main dividing lines.

"A festival has to be a haven of freedom of expression, and if the filmmakers themselves decide 'I want to take the risk', we shouldn't be the ones to say no," de Hadeln said.