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VENICE (Reuters) - A hand-drawn Japanese cartoon, the tale of a clash between native Indians and white settlers in Brazil and a portrayal of Ethiopia's bloody past are favorites to win the Venice film festival's top prize on Saturday.
Hollywood actress Anne Hathaway also impressed critics with an unusually dark role, that of a recovering drug addict in "Rachel Getting Married", in what has otherwise been seen as a weak selection of 21 movies in the main competition.
Revered Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki charmed viewers with "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea", his re-telling of "The Little Mermaid" fairytale which has already stormed the box office in his homeland.
"For the first time, the public and critics are in agreement over Miyazaki's being an animation masterpiece," wrote veteran film critic Natalia Aspesi in Italian daily La Repubblica.
Were Miyazaki to walk off with the Golden Lion prize for best film at the weekend, it would be the fourth year in a row an Asian director had done so.
Ethiopian entry "Teza" is also in the frame for the coveted award, and would be the first African picture to win in Venice, the world's oldest film festival.
Haile Gerima's powerful tale of an intellectual who flees violence and alienation in his native Ethiopia and Germany, would be a generally popular winner on the Lido waterfront.
The Italian press is hoping for a first home win in 10 years with "Birdwatchers", a depiction of indigenous Guarani-Kaiowas with no prospects other than working in slave-like conditions for rich farmers and posing for tourists' cameras.
"It's a good tip for the Golden Lion, because it has a liberal agenda, it is well shot and turns the tables in that the tribal communities are the main protagonists rather than background color," said Lee Marshall of Screen International.
Venice has a growing reputation as a launchpad for successful award campaigns for serious, independently produced films, but in a year when director Marco Mueller has been under fire for his selection, few Academy Award contenders emerged.
One was "Rachel Getting Married", a film about a dysfunctional family haunted by the death of a child, directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme.
Hathaway is best known for her girl-next-door performances in films like "The Princess Diaries" and "The Devil Wears Prada," but her turn as troubled Kym impressed audiences.
"It's the beginning of September and if I started being concerned about (award) buzz now I would never make it through Christmas," Hathaway told Reuters in Venice.
"I could not be happier with this film, whatever happens to it. If it sinks at the box office, if it doesn't ever win an award, it's so successful in my mind," the 25-year-old added.
Also impressive was Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, who starred in "The Burning Plain," an intense story of love and betrayal in the directorial debut by acclaimed Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga.
The Coen brothers opened this year's festival with "Burn After Reading", which was out of competition but ensured that Hollywood A-listers Brad Pitt and George Clooney were on the red carpet in a festival otherwise lacking genuine star power.
And Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" gave Venice a jolt with its portrayal of a U.S. bomb disposal unit working in extreme danger in Iraq. Jeremy Renner, who plays the reckless lead, has been tipped for the best actor award in Venice.
The Italian media in particular has been fretting that Venice may lose out to rival festival Toronto, which starts only days later and is considered by the big studios as a cheaper way of promoting a picture than the expensive canal city.