The festival, which opens Wednesday and runs through Sept. 8, was originally a biennial event and was suspended during World War II and again in the 1970s because of political turmoil.
In 1932, when the first festival took place, nine countries participated; this year there will be 41. The feature films screened at the first event on the Lido numbered 25 (a third were from Hollywood); this year there will be 55 (12 of them from the United States).
The artistic director of the event, Alberto Barbera, who is returning to Venice more than a decade after his last term here, has reduced the number of films this year in the hope that those selected in the three main categories — in-competition, out-of-competition and Horizons, which aims to showcase emerging talent and innovative filmmaking — will be seen by the greatest number of festival goers.
The opening film will be “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a post-9/11 drama directed by Mira Nair, which will be shown out of competition on Wednesday night. Ms. Nair’s film “Monsoon Wedding” won the Golden Lion in 2001, during Mr. Barbera’s previous era as director. The closing film will be “L’homme qui rit,” by Jean-Pierre Améris and starring Gérard Depardieu, based on the Victor Hugo novel.
There are five American directors in competition: Paul Thomas Anderson, Ramin Bahrani, Brian de Palma, Harmony Korine and Terrence Malick. A remake of Alain Corneau’s “Crime d’amour,” Mr. de Palma’s “Passion” is a French-German co-production. There are three Italian films, two from France and one each from Austria, Belgium, Portugal, Israel, Japan, the Philippines, Russia and South Korea (although some of these are international joint productions).
Mr. Malick won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for “The Tree of Life” last year. His new movie “To the Wonder” revolves around a love triangle and stars Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko. In “The Master” Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood”) directs Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in a story about a troubled young man who strikes up a relationship with the founder of a cult that bears more than a passing resemblance to Scientology.
Valeria Sarmiento, the widow of the prolific Chilean filmmaker Raoul Ruiz, who died last year, has brought to fruition his project to make a historical feature set during Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal. “Linhas de Wellington” (The Lines of Wellington), appears in competition and stars John Malkovich, who played the title role in the late director’s “Klimt” (2006), as the British commander.
The Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, who won the Golden Lion for “Hana-bi” (Fireworks) in 1997 and a Silver Lion for “Zatoichi” in 2003, is back in competition with “Outrage Beyond,” a sequel to his yakuza drama “Outrage” (2010).
There are two Chinese features this year, down from six last year, and three from Japan.
The Horizons category includes works from two nations new to Venice: Nepal and Saudi Arabia. The premieres of 10 Horizons movies and 13 short films will also be available simultaneously via the Web to a virtual audience of up 500 viewers on a one-view basis for a payment of €4.20, or $5.25, per feature film or two shorts.
The president of the Golden Lion jury this year will be the director, screenwriter and producer Michael Mann (“The Aviator,” “Collateral”). His daughter Ami Canaan Mann’s debut feature “Texas Killing Fields” premiered in competition at Venice last year. The jury of nine includes the actors Laetitia Casta and Samantha Morton, five directors and a performance artist.
Mr. Barbera has also combed the Biennale’s archive of films shown at the festival since the 1930s. Out of this has come this year’s “80!” retrospective.
Venezia Classici, a second category of restored films from other sources, is projected to become an annual feature. The list this year consists of 19 feature films from around the world and 9 documentaries.