* Venice film festival closes on Saturday
* The Master, Pieta among frontrunners for prizes
* Annual showcase lacked big stars in 2012
* Early Oscar buzz surrounds Master, Iceman
By Mike Collett-White and Silvia Aloisi
VENICE, Sept 7 The credits are about to roll on this year's Venice film festival, and the world's oldest cinema showcase pits Hollywood's finest against up-and-coming American talent and movies by directors from South Korea, France and beyond.
The 11-day stretch of screenings, parties and interviews on the Lido waterfront ends on Saturday with the awards ceremony where the Golden Lion for best picture is handed out.
The prize is one of European cinema's most prestigious and can help a small-budget movie not in English find an audience in the West.
It also puts smaller U.S. productions in the awards frame at the start of the journey to the Oscars, most notably "Brokeback Mountain" in 2005 and "The Wrestler" three years later.
This year's frontrunners for jury president Michael Mann to pick from include the ultra-violent Korean film "Pieta", Paul Thomas Anderson's Scientology story "The Master" and French 1970s drama "Apres Mai".
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 features former Disney starlet Selena Gomez and Oscar-nominated James Franco as an over-the-top gangster rapper.
The world's oldest film festival, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, has been seen as a low-key edition with too few stars to generate the kind of media buzz it thrives on.
But incoming director Alberto Barbera did present a slimmed-down selection of movies that had enough quality to make the trip to the notoriously expensive Canal City worthwhile.
"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.
VIOLENCE, RELIGION, UPHEAVAL, DEATH
Dozens of movies have screened outside the main competition, including opening film "The Reluctant Fundamentalist", serial killer drama "The Iceman" and Robert Redford's political thriller "The Company You Keep".
In The Iceman, Michael Shannon gives a memorable performance as real-life mobster 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.
But as the curtain comes down on the festival, it is the 18-film competition that is the main focus.
Kim Ki-duk would be a popular winner if Pieta scoops the top prize. Although hard to watch for scenes of brutality, 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 featuring Hoffman as founder L. Ron Hubbard, has the added advantage of dealing with a subject matter many directors in Hollywood would consider taboo.
Apres Mai, which has the English title "Something in the Air", follows a group of students caught up in the aftermath of the French protests of 1968.
Some veterans came away from Venice with reputations dented.
American Brian De Palma brought "Passion", which has its world premiere on Friday, but the sexual thriller starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace as rival executives drew jeers after it was screened to the press.
And compatriot Terrence Malick presented "To the Wonder", an impressionistic portrayal of love with virtually no dialogue which some critics defended but many panned.
The reclusive American does not attend events to launch his movies, but the fact that lead actors Ben Affleck, McAdams and Javier Bardem did not make the trip to Venice contributed to the sense of anti-climax.
Barbera said the low star wattage was a matter of timing more than a sign of Venice's longer term decline, in the face of growing competition from the bigger and cheaper Toronto film festival with which it overlaps.
"I'd be happy if every evening we could have 10 stars on the red carpet, but there isn't always a Brad Pitt film available," he told a press conference.
He also introduced a small market in Venice to make the festival more commercially attractive to studio executives buying and selling films, and, although few deals were done, participants said it had potential for the future. (Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)