An Iranian drama about an emigre who returns home looking for love joined the hunt for the Golden Bear for best picture at the 59th Berlin Film Festival on Saturday.
"About Elly" by 36-year-old Asghar Farhadi tells the story of Ahmad, who has divorced his German wife after years living in Europe and takes a trip to the Caspian Sea to make a fresh start.
His friends, a group of fellow 30-somethings, invite the beautiful kindergarten teacher Elly along on the trip in a thinly veiled attempt at matchmaking.
But the getaway takes a tragic turn when Elly vanishes from the beach, exposing hidden tension within the group and a unique kind of love triangle.
Farhadi's last film, the drama "Fireworks Wednesday", was a hit on the international festival circuit. "About Elly" was to premiere in Berlin and Tehran on Saturday night.
He told reporters in Berlin that while the film sheds light on the dynamic between the sexes in today's Iran, the emotions it stirs could appeal to viewers outside.
"I wanted to make a story that was universal -- one that everyone could connect with, not just contemporary Iranians," he said.
"To my mind, these kinds of problems can be found everywhere. I've tried to go below the tip of the iceberg, beneath the surface of the water to see where they are coming from."
Farhadi said he had based the story on a friend living in the northern German city of Hamburg who was trapped in an unhappy marriage.
The strong cast features Golshifteh Farahani who was last seen in the spy thriller "Body of Lies" with Leonardo DiCaprio.
"Our work with Mr Fahradi was a sort of a workshop," Farahani said, adding that the picture was based on significant improvisation.
"It was a sort of a collaboration and a partnership."
Also in competition on Saturday are the German drama "Storm" about the international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, and a supernatural murder mystery by France's Bertrand Tavernier set in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and starring Tommy Lee Jones and John Goodman, "In the Electric Mist".
Two European contenders entered the race Friday: "Ricky" by French director Francois Ozon about a baby with an extraordinary ability, and "Little Soldier" by Denmark's Annette K. Oleson on a woman returning from a mission in a war zone who tries to save a Nigerian prostitute.
Both pictures received mixed reviews from film industry bible Variety.
It said "Ricky" was "an uneasy mix of comedy and the grotesque". While Variety's reviewer Alissa Simon was intrigued by the explosive subject matter in "Little Soldier", she was disappointed by its execution.
"Despite the film's considerable technical craft and involvement of powerhouse thesps (actors), the earnest, overly schematic script fails to connect emotionally," she said.
The Golden Bear will be awarded on February 14 by a jury led by Scottish actress Tilda Swinton. The 11-day festival wraps up the next day.