By Deborah Cole, AFP
BERLIN–A haunting drama about a woman plotting to escape communist East Germany and a story of hardened Italian inmates who stage Shakespeare behind bars were tipped to win the Berlin film festival Saturday. While the 11-day event failed to produce a front-runner like last year’s harrowing Iranian family drama “A Separation” which captured the Golden Bear top prize and is now nominated for two Oscars, critics found several gems. “Barbara” by Germany’s Christian Petzold stars his frequent muse Nina Hoss as a doctor banished from Berlin to a rural clinic after she applies to the authorities for the right to leave the communist East for good. Once there, she is drawn to a friendly doctor who may or may not be working for the Stasi secret police and she begins to question her plan to flee. The tautly paced film topped reviewers’ polls in both the British trade magazine Screen International and the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel. Industry bible Variety called the picture a “subtle thrill.” In a close second place was “Caesar Must Die” by Italy’s veteran film-makers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, a docu-drama about inmates at a high-security prison in Rome putting on a production of “Julius Caesar.” Critics also swooned over Portuguese film-maker Miguel Gomes’s “Tabu,” an inventive two-part black-and-white melodrama set in contemporary Lisbon and colonial Mozambique about an illicit love affair. Danish costume drama “A Royal Affair,” starring James Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen in the true story of the physician of mad king Christian VII who seduces his queen and with her conspires to introduce reforms inspired by the Enlightenment, drew cheers. Another stand-out was “Sister,” about a young Swiss boy who steals skis from a posh Alpine resort to support himself and his older sibling, which included a dramatic twist that packed an emotional punch. And critics also praised “Just the Wind” about Roma killings in Hungary and “War Witch,” a Canadian production about a child soldier filmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Both films starred amateur actors and appealed to the kind of politically driven, activist cinema frequently rewarded at the Berlinale, the first major European film festival of the year. Another of the three German entries, “Mercy,” sharply divided critics, with some calling the tale of forgiveness and redemption set in the Arctic Circle a masterpiece and others dismissing its plot as implausible. And Wang Quan’an’s ambitious epic “White Deer Plain” about the bloody upheavals in the Chinese countryside before the rise of communism also provoked ambivalent reviews. Two keenly awaited pictures, the festival opener “Farewell My Queen” starring Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette and “Captive” featuring Isabelle Huppert as an aid worker kidnapped by Islamist rebels in the Philippines, proved critical disappointments. And Spanish supernatural thriller “Childish Games” left many to wonder how it had won a competition slot. The festival produced many of its highlights outside the competition with Angelina Jolie adding serious star wattage presenting her directorial debut, the Bosnian wartime love story “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” And Meryl Streep walked the red carpet to accept a Golden Bear lifetime achievement award and attend a gala screening of her Margaret Thatcher biopic “The Iron Lady.” British director Mike Leigh, leading a jury that also includes actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, will present the prizes at a ceremony starting at 1800 GMT before the festival’s 62nd edition wraps up Sunday.