February 19, 2010 / 9:30 AM / 8 years ago

Berlin critics back Russia, Romania, Polanski films

BERLIN (Reuters) - Fittingly for a festival where low-budget movies jostle with big Hollywood names, three small eastern European entries and Roman Polanski's picture starring Ewan McGregor are favorites for the main prize in Berlin.

The 60th Berlin film festival closes on Saturday with an awards ceremony where the Golden Bear for best picture is announced along with a host of other prizes.

The gala event brings the curtain down on the 10-day cinema showcase where Leonardo DiCaprio, Renee Zellweger, Martin Scorsese and Ben Stiller have walked the red carpet and the simultaneous European Film Market has seen business pick up.

Guessing the winner from 20 competition films is notoriously difficult, with plenty of surprises in recent years, and the 2010 race looks wide open. But critics are expecting the closing ceremony to have a distinctly east European flavor.

Polish-French director Polanski, who is under house arrest in Switzerland and so could not attend the world premiere of "The Ghost Writer," won Berlin's top award in 1966 with "Cul-de-Sac," and would be a popular choice 44 years on.

His political thriller, completed when he was in prison and under house arrest, centers around an ex-British prime minister whose support for U.S. military policies sees him accused of war crimes, a thinly veiled reference to Tony Blair.

Polanski, 76, is fighting extradition to the United States where he is wanted for having under-aged sex in a case that goes back more than 30 years.

Narrowly ahead of him in Screen International's informal poll of critics are two movies: "How I Ended This Summer" from Russia's Alexei Popogrebsky and "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle" from Romanian director Florin Serban.

ROMANIAN NEW WAVE

A win for Serban would continue the remarkable success of Romanian "new wave" cinema on the European festival circuit in recent years. The movie is a sparse, gritty drama about a young man's desperate bid to escape jail and protect his brother.

Popogrebsky had some critics crowing with his psychological drama set at a remote meteorological station in the desolate Russian Arctic Circle. Sergei tolerates the younger Pavel, who does not take his work as seriously as he should.

When Pavel picks up a radio message concerning an accident to Sergei's family, he dare not tell him, but when his boss eventually finds out, a dangerous confrontation ensues.

Rounding off the eastern European challenge is "On the Path," directed by Bosnia's Jasmila Zbanic who won the Golden Bear with her debut feature "Grbavica" in 2006.

The film examines how people living in a Westernized, multi-cultural society and those observing a strict interpretation of Islam can co-exist, if at all.

"On the Path" is essentially a love story between Luna and Amar, both Muslims by birth who grow apart when Amar joins a group of ultra-conservatives from the Wahhabi sect of Islam.

He quits drinking alcohol and smoking, refrains from sex before marriage and suggests that the couple's inability to conceive a child may be God's punishment for a sinful lifestyle.

Other competition entries that enjoyed some good reviews were China's "Apart Together," tough family drama "Submarino" from Denmark, "Honey" from Turkey's Semih Kaplanoglu and the relentlessly downbeat "Caterpillar," a Japanese anti-war movie.

Three competition films have yet to screen -- Danish drama "A Family," British director Michael Winterbottom's ultra-violent "The Killer Inside Me" and "Mammuth" starring French veteran Gerard Depardieu.

Editing by Steve Addison

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