German film eyes the big prize at Berlin festival

BERLIN Fri Feb 17, 2012 11:21am EST

A scene from the film ''Barbara''. REUTERS/Christian Schulz/Berlin International Film Festival

A scene from the film ''Barbara''.

Credit: Reuters/Christian Schulz/Berlin International Film Festival

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BERLIN (Reuters) - German drama "Barbara" is the critics' favorite to take away the Golden Bear for best picture at this year's Berlin film festival, in what would be the first home win since 2004.

The 10-day cinema showcase, which attracts thousands of journalists, critics and movie industry executives from around the world, ends on Saturday with an awards ceremony.

Hundreds of movies have screened at theatres across the city, while blockbuster titles and shoe-string budget projects have been bought and sold at the film market.

Outside the main competition, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt walked the red carpet for her Bosnian war drama "In the Land of Blood and Honey," while Meryl Streep was honored with a lifetime achievement award on Valentine's Day.

But as the festival, also known as the Berlinale, winds to a close, who is set to win what becomes the main focus.

Victory for Barbara, set in 1980 and dealing with the repressive world of communist East Germany, would clearly resonate at a ceremony held just a stone's throw from where the Berlin Wall once divided the country.

Whether it would then go on to enjoy global recognition, in the same way last year's Iranian winner "A Separation" has, is less certain.

"I personally would be surprised if there is anything like A Separation to come out of the festival so far," said Lee Marshall, film critic for Screen International.

"It started off looking like a real dark horse of a selection -- there were a lot of unknowns. But actually it's turned out to be quite a strong selection in terms of film quality though not in terms of star power."

PRISON DRAMA, STRANGE "TABU"

An informal poll of critics in Berlin puts Barbara narrowly ahead of Italian entry "Caesar Must Die," a docu-drama made in a high-security prison near Rome where inmates rehearse for and stage a production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

Critics praised veteran film makers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani for their black-and-white picture where the words of Shakespeare gain added significance coming from real-life inmates, some of whom are behind bars for life.

Not far behind is "Tabu," another black-and-white picture by Portugal's Miguel Gomes about a self-centered woman called Aurora set first in Lisbon and later in Africa, which reviewers praised for playing with narrative conventions.

Another African tale, "War Witch," was warmly applauded and drew an impressive performance from young Congolese newcomer Rachel Mwanza as a child soldier.

"Sister," which features French actress Lea Seydoux in one of her two starring roles in Berlin, was generally popular, telling a touching story of a young boy who steals ski equipment from a smart Alpine resort to make ends meet.

Seydoux also plays a central role in "Farewell My Queen," a costume drama featuring Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette set in Versailles in 1789 as the aristocracy contemplates the consequences of the popular revolt.

"A Royal Affair," set a few years earlier in the Danish court, tackles many of the same themes.

Mads Mikkelsen portrays the real-life court physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, who tends to the mentally ill king, takes over his powers and has a passionate affair with queen Caroline before the nobility seeks its revenge.

Captivity was the over-riding theme of films in and out of the main competition.

French picture "Coming Home" was partly inspired by the kidnapping and incarceration of Austrian schoolgirl Natascha Kampusch, and "Captive" retold a year-long hostage saga in the Philippines in 2001.

Billy Bob Thornton was back behind the camera to direct his first feature in more than a decade.

"Jayne Mansfield's Car," a dark comedy set in the southern United States in the 1960s, stars John Hurt and Robert Duvall as the heads of two rival families.

In a strong year for documentaries, critics singled out "Marley," the first authorized biography of the reggae legend, "Tomorrow" about a group of dissident Russian artists and "Canned Dreams," which exposes the absurdity of food production.

On the market, specialist publications reported steady yet unspectacular business, with emerging markets making up for slow sales in troubled European economies like Spain and Italy.

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White; editing by Paul Casciato)

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