BERLIN (Reuters Life!) - Iranian drama "Nader and Simin: A Separation" is seen as the narrow favorite to win the coveted Golden Bear for best picture at the 2011 Berlin film festival when it ends with the prize giving ceremony on Saturday.
But dark Hungarian tale "The Turin Horse," shot in black and white, and "If Not Us, Who," a nuanced portrayal of the birth of the German guerilla Red Army Faction, have emerged as strong contenders toward the end of the 10-day cinema showcase.
Nader and Simin is a subtle examination of Iran's social divide and religious traditions, and fits in neatly with what some German media have dubbed the "Iranian Berlinale."
The festival opened with calls for Iran to allow director Jafar Panahi to travel to Berlin and accept his invitation to sit on the jury.
Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail and banned from making movies or traveling abroad for 20 years after being accused of inciting opposition protests in 2009 and making a film without permission.
His absence was marked with an empty chair alongside jury head Isabella Rossellini at the opening press conference.
"Just when it seemed impossible for Iranian filmmakers to express themselves meaningfully outside the bounds of censorship, Asghar Farhadi's Nader and Simin ... comes along to prove the contrary," said Hollywood Reporter's Deborah Young.
What the reviewers say and judges decide often differ, however, making it an unpredictable event with many surprises in recent years. Just one competition films of the 16 in contention for awards has yet to screen.
More of a love-it-or-loathe-it contender, Hungarian director Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse" drew praise for its uncompromising portrayal of the forsaken lives of a farmer and daughter living alone in a shadowy farmhouse on an isolated, windswept plain.
Featuring the filmmaker's trademark long takes and with barely any dialogue, the film reconstructs the seemingly endless repetition of daily life for the pair -- drawing water from a well, eating potatoes, stoking the fire, dressing, sleeping.
In the words of Tarr, who has said this would be his last picture, "the film portrays mortality, with that deep pain which we, who are under sentence of death, all feel."
And also popular was "If Not Us, Who?", Andres Veiel's debut feature depicting the fiery and tragic relationship between writer Bernward Vesper and Gudrun Ensslin, who went on to become a key figure in the German leftist group that carried out a campaign of kidnappings and murders in the 1970s.
Also known as the "Baader-Meinhof Gang" after founders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, the Red Army Faction grew from the left-wing student protests and anti-Vietnam war movements in the late 1960s.
Also singled out were "Margin Call," a reconstruction of the 2008 financial collapse starring Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore and Jeremy Irons star and "Sleeping Sickness," about a European family doing humanitarian work in Africa.
Berlin was relatively short of major screen stars on the red carpet this year, despite Madonna's brief visit to show clips from her upcoming royal saga "W.E." which she presented to potential distributors.
And the European Film Market, a key parallel event which attracts industry executives from around the world, was described by the specialist press as "steady" and "robust."
They noted that, while deals were done, there was a lack of top titles being offered with the exception of Madonna's W.E. and the upcoming "Gambit," with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz.
"Berlin is not really the place where the big studios tend to do business," said one senior U.S. movie executive, declining to be named. "But it's a great meet and greet opportunity, and we are looking for some deals."
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Christine Kearney