The Venice film festival will present its coveted Golden Lion award Saturday after a competition marked by facemasks and missing stars but billed as a relaunch of global cinema, bruised by the coronavirus crisis.

Throughout the 11 days of industry schmoozing and movie watching on the glitzy beachfront Lido, elbow bumps replaced handshakes, theatregoers were masked and the red carpet eerily devoid of screaming fans.

The 77th edition of the "Mostra" festival has taken place against an unprecedented backdrop, in a year where theatres have been closed, film sets shut down and moviegoers forced to embrace streaming video at home instead, during months of coronavirus-imposed lockdown.

Many directors saluted the festival's organisers for going ahead with the event.

"The Venice Film Festival has given us the opportunity and the privilege to start dreaming again," Italian director Emma Dante said in Ciak magazine, distributed daily at the festival.

Leading contenders among the 18 films vying for the top prize include Michel Franco's "Nuevo Orden" (New Order), a dystopian view of Mexico, Gianfranco Rosi's documentary "Notturno" shot on the borders of Syria, "Quo Vadis, Aida?" by Bosnia's Jasmila Zbanic about the 1995 Srebrenica massacre and "Dear Comrades!" from veteran Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky about the 1962 shooting of striking factory workers in the USSR by the army.

The last entry in the competition lineup to premiere was the much anticipated "Nomadland" by US director Chloe Zhao, starring Frances McDormand -- one of the few films from the United States at the festival -- which received sustained applause during its earlier press screening.

Normally attended by more than 10,000 film industry executives, critics, journalists and moviegoers, the Venice festival was the first major international movie competition to go ahead after others around the world, including its main rival, the Cannes Film Festival, were cancelled.

Festival director Alberto Barbera called the event "a sort of test" for the film industry, which is slowly regaining its footing, with some production resuming and cinemas reopening, even as Covid-19 cases continue to rise in many parts of the world.

In Italy, the festival was also viewed as a sign of hope and normalcy for the first country in Europe to be battered by the global crisis.

Nevertheless, big-budget blockbusters that have premiered in Venice in years past were missing, as was the bevy of Hollywood A-listers, who have fans screaming for autographs on the sidelines of the red carpet.

Eighteen films are vying for the top Golden Lion at the Venice film festival
Eighteen films are vying for the top Golden Lion at the Venice film festival AFP / Tiziana FABI

Instead, the 2020 version was decidedly low-key, with about half the usual number of attendees, fewer films and seating in theatres that was staggered to respect social distancing.

Masks were mandatory, hand sanitiser bountiful, temperatures were taken on entering the festival grounds and ubiquitous red signs warned attendees to respect the anti-coronavirus measures.

Still, organisers said the scaled-down event offered a diverse panorama of cinema today, with 50 different countries represented in the lineup.

Of the contenders for the top prize, eight were directed by women, which some hope reflects a new direction for festivals after criticism in past years over a lack of gender diversity.

Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Scarlett Johansson were among those to have supplied the celebrity panache at last year's festival.

But ongoing travel restrictions -- especially a travel ban from the United States into Europe -- mean most Hollywood big names were no-shows this year, along with actors and directors from China, India and South America.

However, Cate Blanchett, as jury president, provided some much-needed star power, telling an opening night audience that the festival's launch seemed "some kind of wonderous miracle."

"The way is uncertain, but tonight is a beginning," she said.

As well as Blanchett, the judges comprise US actor Matt Dillon, Austrian director Veronika Franz, British director Joanna Hogg, Italian writer Nicola Lagioia, German director Christian Petzold and French actress Ludivine Sagnier.

Last year, "Joker" by US director Todd Phillips took home the Golden Lion, while Roman Polanski won the runner-up Grand Jury prize for "An Officer and a Spy."