VENICE  (AFP):

Critics have tipped movies from Britain, Japan and the United States to win Venice's Golden Lion prize this year, due to be announced at the world's oldest film festival on Saturday. British director Stephen Frears provoked a hugely enthusiastic response with his charming tragi-comedy "Philomena", the true tale of a mother's search for her son after he is given up for adoption by Catholic nuns in Ireland.

Starring Judi Dench as Philomena Lee and comic actor Steve Coogan as the ex-BBC journalist who helps her, the film puts the spotlight on one of the Church's dark secrets and Frears joked that Pope Francis should see it. Many critics remained unconvinced, however, that it was daring enough to win over the jury, headed by Italian cinematic master Bernardo Bertolucci. Japanese Oscar-winning animator Hayao Miyazaki impressed with "The Wind Rises", the tale of a boy who yearns to design planes, based partly on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man behind Japan's deadly A6M Zero fighter aircraft. "Miss Violence", by Greek director Alexandros Avranas, shocked audiences with a chilling tale of incest and child suicide. Domestic abuse also dominated German filmmaker Philip Groning's "The Police Officer's Wife", a lengthy work split into 59 chapters -- testing audience endurance -- in which a mother tries to shield her child from paternal violence. The jury's choices are due to be announced in a ceremony starting at 1700 GMT. The festival has brought Hollywood stars including George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Nicolas Cage and Scarlett Johansson by speed boat and gondola to Venice's Lido, as well as art house auteurs from around the globe. A total of 20 films are competing at the festival, including James Franco's necrophilia flick "Child of God", the tale of an outcast whose loneliness drives him have sex with corpses. US actor Scott Haze -- who isolated himself for three months and slept in caves to prepare for the part -- is the hot favourite for the best actor prize after astounding audiences with his harrowing depiction of madness and loss. Viewers were also impressed by Cage's performance in David Gordon Green's "Joe", where he plays an ex-con who hopes to redeem himself for past sins by saving a teenage boy from his alcoholic father. Critics said Tsai Ming-liang's slow-moving "Stray Dogs", which many viewers walked out of in boredom, has an outside chance at clinching the top prize. The only Chinese-language picture in the competition, it follows a homeless family living on society's margins in Taipei, and exhausted many with its extraordinarily long shots. Some critics suggested that, with the US mulling intervening in the Middle East again, the jury might give the award to Errol Morris's "The Unknown Known", an interview with former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The film presses Rumsfeld on decisions taken in the lead-up to the Iraq war but he proves to be a combative, slippery customer.