By Mike Collett-White
VENICE (Reuters) - The Venice film festival ends on Saturday with an awards ceremony where favorites for the top prize, the Golden Lion, include Paul Thomas Anderson's Scientology story "The Master" and Korean director Kim Ki-duk's ultra-violent "Pieta".
They are among 18 films in the main competition eligible for the lion and other acting and directing prizes, and festival juries are notoriously hard to second guess.
"Collateral" director Michael Mann is president of this year's panel at the world's oldest film festival, and must decide between entries from across the globe that cover themes of religion, violence, betrayal, vengeance, love and greed.
The glitzy awards ceremony, after which the out-of-competition closing movie "L'Homme qui rit" will screen, brings the curtain down on 11 days of films, interviews, photoshoots and parties on the Lido waterfront.
Critics generally agree that incoming director Alberto Barbera's selection has been solid, but the international media has bemoaned the lack of A-list stars on the red carpet which has taken much of the buzz away from this year's festival.
"Despite falling audiences due to the economic crisis, a not always glamorous red carpet and grey sky, it held its own with a lineup that may not have been impressive but was still pretty good," said La Stampa film critic Alessandra Levantesi Kezich.
Barbera has his work cut out to preserve Venice's place as one of the world's top three film festivals, with the bigger and cheaper rival event in Toronto threatening to overshadow it.
Dozens of movies also screened out of competition, including opening film "The Reluctant Fundamentalist", serial killer drama "The Iceman" and Robert Redford's "The Company You Keep".
In The Iceman, Michael Shannon gives a memorable performance as real-life mob hitman Richard Kuklinski, while in The Company You Keep, Shia LaBeouf shines as a reporter hot on the trail of Redford's character, a former leftwing militant.
VIOLENCE, RELIGION AND DEATH
But as credits roll on the festival, it is the 18-film competition that is in focus.
Kim would be a popular winner if Pieta scoops the top prize. Although hard to watch for scenes of brutal violence, it is an absorbing study of the relationship between a cruel yet needy young man and mysterious older woman claiming to be his mother.
The Master features two standout performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix which could put them both on the road to Oscar recognition early next year.
Anderson's story, set during the early days of the Church of Scientology and starring Hoffman as founder L. Ron Hubbard, has the advantage of dealing with a subject matter many directors in Hollywood would consider taboo.
Apres Mai, titled "Something in the Air" in English, follows a group of students caught up in the aftermath of the French protests of 1968.
Italy has a reasonable chance of a first home win in Venice since 1998 with "Bella Addormentata" (Sleeping Beauty), the well-received account of Eluana Englaro, centre of a 2009 right-to-die case that deeply divided opinion in the Catholic country.
And "wild card" possibilities include Russian adultery tale "Betrayal" and raunchy American teen romp "Spring Breakers", which includes former Disney starlet Selena Gomez and Oscar-nominated James Franco as an over-the-top gangster rapper.
Terrence Malick presented "To the Wonder", an impressionistic portrayal of love with virtually no dialogue which some critics defended but others panned.
The reclusive American does not attend events to launch his movies, but the fact that lead actors Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem did not make the trip to Venice contributed to the sense of anti-climax.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)