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Berlin Film Festival competition dips into the past

This year’s selection at the Berlin International Film Festival spans genres and geography, but features a large number of movies that look backward to various periods of history. UK director Mike Leigh (pictured) will serve as jury chair.

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Stars, reporters, and cinephiles will brave the bitter cold this month for the 62nd annual Berlin International Film Festival, to take place from February 9 to 19.

It may not have the glamour or balmy climate of Cannes and Venice or the hipness of Sundance, but the “Berlinale” is nevertheless considered a prestigious film event, enabling ambitious directors from various corners of the world to gain wider recognition. The film that took home the top “Golden Bear” prize last year, Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian drama “A Separation”, went on to become an international critical hit and is a leading contender for the best foreign film award at the upcoming Oscars, as well as at Britain’s BAFTAs and France’s Césars.

The movie was a tense, timely examination of the daily difficulties and oppressions of life in present-day Iran. This year’s selection is as eclectic and globe-spanning as ever, but features a striking proportion of works that look back in time.

Period dramas stretching across history and continents

Among those is the opening film, one of the festival’s highest-profile costume dramas: French director Benoit Jacquot’s “Farewell My Queen”, set on the eve of the French Revolution, with German-born actress Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette and one of France’s rising starlets, Léa Seydoux, as her lady-in-waiting.

Another in-competition entry with an 18th-century backdrop is “A Royal Affair”, a Danish historical drama about a queen who falls in love with the doctor of her mentally unstable husband. Mads Mikkelsen, a Scandinavian leading man known to international audiences as the villain in recent James Bond flick “Casino Royale”, plays the physician.

One of the most eagerly awaited Asian films in competition is Wang Quan'an’s “White Deer Plain” (“Bai lu yuan”), an epic saga based on a controversial Chinese novel about struggling peasant families half a century before the rise of communism. Wang won the Golden Bear in 2007 for “Tuya's Marriage”, a love story revolving around a woman and her two husbands in rural China.

A more recent era will be depicted in the competition’s only American feature, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car”, directed by actor (and Angelina Jolie’s former husband) Billy Bob Thornton. Set during the Vietnam War, the movie tells the story of a feud between two families in the southern US and stars Thornton, Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, and John Hurt.

Of the handful of German works in competition, one of the most highly anticipated is “Barbara”, from critically acclaimed director Christian Petzold. The film tells the story of a woman doctor in 1978 East Germany who is transferred to the countryside for disciplinary reasons and falls in love with a mysterious man who tries to help her escape.

Two of the competition’s most politically charged entries are coloured by current rather than past events: Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza’s “Captive”, starring iconic French actress Isabelle Huppert as a humanitarian worker abducted by an Islamist extremist group; and “Csak a Szel” (“Just the Wind’’), directed by Hungarian Bence Fliegauf, inspired by the true story of serial killings of Hungarian Roma in 2008 and 2009.

But like a significant portion of the films competing for a prize, the out-of-competition screenings will also delve into historical territory. Fresh from its rapturously received premiere at Sundance will be James Marsh’s “Shadow Dancer”, a drama about IRA members and MI5 agents in 1990s Belfast starring Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson.

Also showing out of competition is the latest film from popular Chinese director Zhang Yimou, “The Flowers of War”, with Christian Bale as a Westerner hiding out in China during the 1937 Nanking Massacre.

The starriest red-carpet walk of all will likely be for the out-of-competition “Bel Ami”, based on Guy de Maupassant’s 19th-century novel about a young man’s relationships with wealthy Parisian women; the film features “Twilight” heartthrob Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci.

Renowned English filmmaker Mike Leigh – who last competed for the festival’s big prize in 2008 with “Be Happy” – will chair the jury this year. Meanwhile, Meryl Streep, currently in the running for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in biopic “The Iron Lady, will accept an honorary award.

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