The curtain raiser for the Venice Film Festival is the 41-year-old American director Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. A psychological thriller, it is set in the highly competitive Ballet world in New York. Aronofsky has won an award in the 3008 festival for the Mickey Rourke starrer The Wrestler.

Other competing directors in the special spotlight for the new generation of film makers are the Oscar-winner American Sophia Coppola and the 43-year-old Francois Ozon of France.

The 39-year-old Coppola, who had won a best screenplay award for Lost in Translation (2003), offers Somewhere, a dramatic comedy set in Hollywood. The movie is produced by the legendary Francis Ford Coppola.

Ozon's Potiche has veterans Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu starring in the movie.

Twenty-four films will be competing for this year's Golden Lion award. A late entrant Essenttal Killing by polish director Jerzy Skolimowski is also in the running. The movie is about a member of the Taliban, played by Vincent Gallo, who is captured by the Americans and is transferred to Europe for interrogation.

New York-based Gallo is also present in the festival lineup as the director of the in-competition Promises Written on Water. It is the tale of a girl with a terminal illness.

The surprise candidate will be announced on Sunday.

Meanwhile, organizers fear that the Iranian authorities will not allow the prominent filmmaker Jafar Panahi to travel to Venice for the screening of his short film The Accordion on Wednesday.

Expressing their solidarity with Panahi, who won the Golden Lion here in 2000 for The Circle, they said in a statement: We hope that in the coming days we will receive comforting news. The statement also said that in all likelihood Panahi will be represented by his colleague Mazdak Taebi.

Apart from Aronofsky and Coppola, three other American directors are also in the running for the Golden Lion: Kelly Reichardt with Meek's Cutoff, Julian Schnabel with Miral starring Willem Dafoe and Monte Hellman with Road to Nowhere.

The Italians have four films in the events running through September 11, including Saverio Costanzo's movie that is based on the best-selling novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano.

Among the three French candidates is Black Venus by Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche, whose The Secret of the Grain won the special jury award in Venice in 2007.

Black Venus is the story of a southern African slave of Dutch farmers. The slave was exhibited as a freak show attraction in Europe in the early 19th century.

There are only three Asian films in the running in the world's oldest film festival. Of these two are from Japan: 13 Assassins by Miike Takashi and Norwegian Wood by Tran Anh Hung; and one from China, Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame by Tsui Hark.

The event will screen 79 full-length world premieres from 34 countries including a work from the Dominican Republic for the first time, about its neighbor Haiti.

Quentin Tarantino heads the jury, which includes fellow directors Arnaud Desplechin of France, Guillermo Arriaga of Mexico and Italian Gabriele Salvatores. They will choose winners for the Golden Lion for best film, Volpi Cups for best actor and actress, and a special jury prize, among other awards