Ever since Benito Mussolini invented the film festival, in Venice in 1932, art and industry have merged at festivals to create strange bedfellows. Now the workings of film culture are highlighted by incongruous blends of polemics and test marketing, promotion and education, displays of power and tributes to art and artistry.

The fascist splendor of the outdoor screenings in Venice, involving grandiose fountains and light displays, lasted for at least a half century (I saw one with Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers in 1979). Now they’re gone, but vestiges of the portentous atmosphere linger, including elaborate security measures this year–every viewer was searched thoroughly before entering any of the festival’s half-dozen venues. But the seriousness of the jury, headed by Catherine Deneuve, was no less striking, as it gave the two top prizes to the best films I saw there, Alain Resnais’ Hearts and Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life.

Both movies were shown at the Toronto film festival afterward, but neither is coming to the Chicago International Film Festival, whose programming this year seems to suffer, as usual, from minimal clout, bad timing, disorganization, and the tendency of its better programmers to move on. (This year’s notable loss was Helen Gramates.) Of the other ten best features I saw in Venice and Toronto–Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako, Jafar Panahi’s Offside, Garin Nugroho’s Opera Jawa, Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth, Ron Mann’s Tales of the Rat Fink, Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle Toujours, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century–only the last three have made it into the Chicago festival. And the festival doesn’t have a monopoly on worthy fare: Tales of the Rat Fink is playing this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center (where Mann decided to show it instead of at the festival), and the Film Center and Chicago Filmmakers are both presenting exciting short works by School of the Art Institute graduate Weerasethakul (better known as “Joe”).

No matter what gets shown, strange bedfellows are sure to emerge. At Venice the security searches prompted filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub–deservedly awarded with Daniele Huillet a special jury prize for their combined body of work–to say he and his partner couldn’t attend, one reason being that it was hard to be festive with “so many public and private police looking for a terrorist.” He wryly noted that he was “the terrorist,” then added, idiotically, paraphrasing writer Franco Fortini, “So long as there’s American imperialistic capitalism, there’ll never be enough terrorists in the world.” Equally idiotic was the request from American juror Cameron Crowe that the jury “distance itself” from Straub’s tasteless remark–but only because it was “anti-American,” not because it breezily ignored the countless non-American victims of terrorism. These two filmmakers from opposite ends of the industry were projecting the same provinciality.

Toronto, which may have the most domestic and laid-back street life in North America, confidently hosted its orderly, user-friendly, noncompetitive festival. This year it was more industry run than ever–it might even have had more media blitzes than Sundance–and higher ticket prices kept public attendance down. Many serious noncommercial films were shown, though this seemed chiefly a kind of courtesy to cinephiles. The local press treated the arrival of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lopez at a couple of premieres as the only cultural event of any importance.

I made the mistake of attending the first of these premieres–Babel, the final feature in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s trilogy (preceded by Amores Perros and 21 Grams). A pretentious parable of our times, Babel involves terrorist alerts, Moroccan peasants, a troubled deaf-mute teenager and her wealthy father in Tokyo, a Mexican maid without papers in California, and an American couple (Pitt and Cate Blanchett) traveling in Morocco. But all this took a backseat to the hysteria, which had clearly been manufactured to generate headlines.

Some would argue that the absence of personal appearances by Pitt and Lopez signals the Chicago festival’s lack of frontline status, though it can claim appearances by Liza Minnelli, Ruby Dee, Spike Lee, and Stephen Frears, among others. The absence of any film by Straub-Huillet or Pedro Costa might signal that lack of status to others. But neither precludes the possibility of adventure and discovery.

It won’t be easy to navigate the 110 separate programs–many more than in Venice, though many less than in Toronto. We’ve reviewed around half the features; the rest are described briefly. It would be absurd to generalize about what we haven’t seen, dispensing the kind of reassurance many critics like to offer and attempting to alleviate any guilt over missing most of what gets shown (as we all do, critics included). Among the films in the festival I’ve seen that I can highly recommend–apart from Stranger Than Fiction, showing opening night, with Dustin Hoffman and Will Ferrell scheduled to attend–are Oliveira’s delicious Belle Toujours, Chabrol’s timely Comedy of Power, the startling yet charming Shortbus, the mysterious Slumming, and two provocative Thai films, Syndromes and a Century and Invisible Waves. And there are undoubtedly some things I don’t like that you will.

Screenings this year are being held through October 19. Many directors and a few actors are scheduled to appear with their films. See our pullout guide on page 17 for complete listings and reviews, and be sure to check next week’s paper and our Web site for listings for week two. Check the festival Web site for program changes.