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Films on Guantanamo, Bosnia lead at Berlinale

After a shaky start, the Berlin Film Festival has hit its stride with bold political films on the US lock-up at Guantanamo Bay and Bosnian rape victims tipped for top prizes.

india Updated: Feb 15, 2006 14:34 IST

After a shaky start, the Berlin Film Festival has hit its stride with bold political films on the US lock-up at Guantanamo Bay and Bosnian rape victims tipped for top prizes.

The Road to Guantanamo by British director and activist Michael Winterbottom, the 2003 winner of the Berlinale's Golden Bear award for best film, drew cheers at its world premiere in the German capital.

The picture, which was handpicked by festival director Dieter Kosslick as a protest against the US detention camp, tells the true story of three British Muslims held at the prison for two years before being released without charge.

"We want to show the world what is happening there," Shafiq Rasul, one of the former inmates, told a packed news conference after the film. "We want the place to be closed down."

Another frontrunner is Grbavica, a bleak but inspiring Bosnian film on the plight of thousands of women who were raped during the Balkan wars. Serbian actress Mirjana Karanovic was singled out for a courageous performance.

A critics' poll by trade magazine Screen International also gave US director Robert Altman a solid chance of taking home the gold for his good-natured musical comedy A Prairie Home Companion starring Meryl Streep.

Hollywood Reporter chief critic Kirk Honeycutt said that after disappointments in the early days of the festival, the event was picking up momentum.

"I was worried about it for the first couple of nights -- most festivals front-load their programs but this one seems to be getting better as it goes along," he said.

Meanwhile some of the best-received features were screened out of competition at the Berlinale, which ranks along with Cannes and Venice among the top three European film festivals.

George Clooney won applause for Syriana, a complex story of collusion between governments and big oil, while V for Vendetta, a sci-fi thriller starring Natalie Portman, generated a buzz.

But as in every year, there have also been a few clunkers.

The opening film, Snow Cake, drew praise for Sigourney Weaver's authentic portrayal of an autistic woman who loses a daughter but industry bible Variety dismissed the picture as "slushy".

Argentinian drama El Custodio (The Minder), about the solitary existence as a bodyguard for a government minister, was also widely panned.

"This film could win the Golden Bear for the most boring film in the history of the Berlinale," the Tagesspiegel wrote on Tuesday.

The Science of Sleep by French Oscar winner Michel Gondry (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) left the critics divided between admirers of its whimsical visual effects and those bored by its incoherent love story.

Although they were among the most eagerly awaited, the two German films screened during the competition to date have largely disappointed critics.

The Elementary Particles, based on a best-selling novel by French author Michel Houellebecq,was knocked for pulling the book's punches, while The Free Will about the improbable story of a woman who falls for a serial rapist was ruled nearly unwatchable for its gruelling scenes of sexual violence.

Its director Matthias Glasner did not help matters when he told reporters that his film had allowed a friend to "remove the horror" of her own rape, sparking howls of disbelief.

And the visually arresting Wu Ji (The Promise) by Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige, saw dozens of walk-outs at its Berlin screenings as European viewers had trouble relating to the fantastical story of love and honor.

The week still has a few keenly awaited pictures in store including the addiction drama Candy starring Oscar nominee Heath Ledger, and Capote featuring his rival for the best actor prize, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And veteran filmmakers Sidney Lumet and Claude Chabrol will be unveiling new movies.

An international jury led by British actress Charlotte Rampling will award the prizes at a gala ceremony Saturday night.

First Published: Feb 15, 2006 14:34 IST