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BERLIN (Reuters) - Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley team up in a movie based on Philip Roth's short novel "The Dying Animal," about a charismatic and selfish professor who loses his composure when he falls in love with a student half his age.
"Elegy," which premieres at the Berlin Film Festival on Sunday, deals with universal themes of love, death and illness, and portrays beauty as a burden as well as a blessing.
It also seeks to show that growing old does not necessarily mean growing up, as Kingsley's character, David Kepesh, preserves his independence while failing to overcome impulses of jealousy and doubt that threaten to undermine the relationship.
The movie, which will be released later this year, is directed by Spain's Isabel Coixet.
British actor Kingsley, 64, said it was Kepesh's vulnerability which attracted him to the role.
"She (Coixet) created an environment in which we could be very vulnerable to each other and very vulnerable to our feelings, and I think the highest currency that any actor can deal in is vulnerability," he told a press conference.
As Kepesh loses control of his emotions, Cruz's character, Consuela Castillo, grows in confidence and towards the end remarks that she feels older than him.
"Which is the dying animal in the movie? Is it me or her? That's the irony," Kinsgley said.
Spaniard Cruz, 33, was asked whether she felt she had to work harder as an actress to dispel suspicions she was cast mainly for her looks.
"My career has been plenty of offers of roles that had nothing to do with any of that," she told reporters.
"I never consider myself too ...," she added, apparently reluctant to use the word "beautiful."
"I don't want to name it because it's been named by others and they try to put you in a box and create a drama out of something that is not. I've never wanted to play that game -- a victim of what?"
Cruz, wearing a calf-length, figure-hugging black dress, said she had wanted to play the character of Consuela for years.
"I was obsessed with the book," she said. "I read it six years ago. I am a very big fan of Philip Roth and I had a first meeting with the producers many years ago."
While there is plenty of humor, particularly in scenes when Kepesh and his friend, played by Dennis Hopper, swap advice about love on the squash court or in the sauna, sickness, death and a strained father-son relationship hang over the story.
"It's not a comedy," said Coixet. "It's my landscape, it's what I feel comfortable with. I always dreamed of making comedy but I know I don't have the tools to do it."
Kingsley appears for the second time at the festival this year, which runs from February 7-17. He also stars in "TransSiberian," a Hitchcock-inspired thriller set on board a train across Russia.
(Editing by Catherine Evans)
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