VENICE - New father George Clooney was back in the Venice limelight Saturday with his new film, "Suburbicon," a toxic depiction of 1950s America competing for the film festival's Golden Lion.
The star's new production, jointly written with the Coen brothers, had its world premiere ahead of an eagerly-awaited red carpet appearance by the actor and his lawyer wife Amal, three years after the glamorous couple were married in the Lagoon city.
The pair were spotted on Thursday enjoying a no-kids date night, three months after Amal gave birth to twins Ella and Alexander.
The "Suburbicon" of the title in Clooney's sixth directorial outing is a suburban idyll of neat back yards lined by wooden fences and freckle-faced boys melded to their baseball gloves.
Packets of Tiger Tony's Frosties fill the kitchen cupboads and there is a Chevrolet or an Oldsmobile on every drive.
But this cinematically familiar territory located in an age of optimism also hosts a darker side of cruelly-enforced racial segregation and mob loansharking that provides the backdrop for the blood-splattered plot.
There is, literally, poison in the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches enjoyed by Suburbicon resident Gardener Lodge and his family.
Lust, greed and stupidity
Lodge, played by a deliberately beefier-than-usual Matt Damon, lives with his wheelchair-bound wife Rose, her sister Margaret and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe).
Gardener has money worries, Rose blames him for the accident that left her disabled and Margaret envies her sister's life.
But these secret tensions aside, nothing in the family set-up hints at the grisly mayhem which ensues after two mobsters chloroform the family during a bungled break-in, killing Rose.
Gardener's world soon begins to unravel completely in a sequence of events driven by a typically Coenesque cocktail of lust, greed and stupidity, and seen mostly through the eyes of Nicky.
Meanwhile, the Meyers, an African-American family, have moved in next door. Nicky is thrilled to have a new friend, their son Andy, to play with but the rest of the town is not so welcoming.
Andy's mother Daisy visits the local store only to discover that the price of every item has been hiked to $20, just for her.
Soon the family are under siege in their new home, hundreds of protestors banging drums around the clock in an effort to force them out.
Clooney said he had wanted to puncture rose-tinted views of a time in American history that is frequently seen as something of a golden age of prosperity and hope, particularly by Hollywood.
"You could get a good job, live in a nice neighborhood and start a family, as long as you were white," the 56-year-old said in comments released by the film's producers.
"What's fun is peeling back that veneer of the perfect home life, and seeing how ugly things can get."
The director took inspiration from the true story of what happened when the real-life Meyers became the first black family to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957.
As the film shows, by the evening of their first day in their new home, they had 500 people on their lawn, Confederate flags on their house and a cross burning on the lawn next door.
Clooney uses contemporary news footage of the harassment of the Meyers in the film. "Sometimes you have to see the real stuff to make it really land," he said.
"When you see a film that deals with race and bigotry in the 50s or 60s, it's almost always in the South.
"We're used to people with Southern accents using this kind of language, but as someone from Kentucky, it's worth discussing that these are people from Pennsylvania and New York scapegoating minorities."
"Often the bigotry is casual and shocking to an audience today, but the truth is, this wasn't that long ago."
Clooney's commitment to issues of racial equality in the United Stats was underlined by his recent donation of $1 million to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy organization that monitors hate groups.
He and Amal made the donation via their Clooney Foundation for Justice following clashes between white supremacists and anti-racism protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one woman dead.