Berlin fest wraps up after crowning political films
Sun, Feb 17, 2008

BERLIN, GERMANY - THE Berlin Film Festival wrapped up on Sunday after awarding its top prize to a bloody Brazilian drama that some critics accused of glorifying police brutality in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

'The Elite Squad', which beat out favourites from Hollywood and Britain to win the Golden Bear for best picture, portrays violence and corruption within a crack police team sent to clean up Rio's crime-infested favelas.

A box-office hit in Brazil, director Jose Padilha's film sharply divided critics at the 58th Berlinale, with one reviewer calling it 'a recruitment film for fascist thugs.'

Padilha, 40, said he had been 'concerned' at some of the criticism, but insisted it was misplaced.

'Perhaps they just didn't grasp what it was about, which is a shame,' he told reporters.

'The film aims to explain how the state turns policemen either into corrupt people .. or worst of all violent people,' he said. 'The huge majority of Brazilians understand that. I don't think it's mysterious.'

A Brazilian-Argentinian production, 'The Elite Squad' depicts a police clean-up campaign in Rio's favelas, with scenes of teenage dealers being tortured with plastic bags over their heads and druglords shot at point-blank range.

Padilha accepted the statuette from this year's jury president, Greek-French director Costa-Gavras ('Missing'), who stressed that the winning film had been a unanimous choice.

The jury's runner-up prize was also controversial: 'Standard Operating Procedure', a probing look at the systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison by Oscar-winning director Errol Morris.

It was the first documentary ever shown in competition in Berlin, where this year's line-up of 21 films contending for top awards was criticised by some as lacking in surprises.

Morris was also accused of veering into the sensational with graphic reenactments of the inmates' abuse, even as critics praised his demand for accountability in the scandal.

Jan Schulz-Ojala, chief reviewer for Berlin's daily Der Tagesspiegel, said the jury's choices marked a return to the festival's roots in championing cinema with a message.

'Two films triumphed that look like newspaper editorials - their questionable aesthetics were apparently of less interest,' he wrote Sunday.

Welt am Sonntag critic Hanns-Georg Rodek hailed a 'clever' choice by the jury, saying Padilha had offered an incisive social critique.

'Padilha examines almost all of Brazilian society - the poor, the dealers, the police force divided between the corrupt and the honest, the well-meaning non-governmental organisations, the intellectual elite who complain about the scourge of drugs even though they enjoy partaking themselves,' he said.

The best director prize went to US filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson for the heavily favoured 'There Will Be Blood' in which British-born Daniel Day-Lewis gives a towering performance as a tyrannical oil prospector.

'Daniel is an actor who makes any director look like a good director,' said Anderson, who won a Golden Bear in 2000 for 'Magnolia'.

'There Will Be Blood' had topped several critics' polls for best film, but its eight Oscar nominations may have prompted the jury to feel that the Golden Bear should go to a movie with less exposure.

The best actor Silver Bear went to Iran's Reza Najie who starred in 'The Song of Sparrows' as Karim, an ostrich farmer on the outskirts of Tehran who moves to the city when he loses his job.

'I represented my country to the whole world, as an Iranian and as a Muslim,' Najie, 65, said.

And British actress Sally Hawkins picked up the prize for her turn as an infectiously optimistic school teacher in Mike Leigh's upbeat 'Happy-Go-Lucky' - another Berlinale favourite.

The 11-day Berlinale screened nearly 400 pictures and attracted 20,000 accredited visitors from 125 countries.

It closes on Sunday with repeat showings of some of the most popular titles.

Out-of-competition offerings were among the glitziest events, with the world premiere of Martin Scorsese's concert film of the Rolling Stones 'Shine A Light' opening the festival with all four band members on the red carpet.

And the biggest splash by a first-time filmmaker was made by Madonna, who whipped up a paparazzi frenzy as she unveiled her directorial debut 'Filth and Wisdom'.

Most reviews acknowledged that the film had a certain charm although several echoed the advice of Britain's Daily Telegraph that Madonna 'would do well to hang on to her day job'. -- AFP


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