Refugee comedy, transgender love story lead pack at Berlin fest

BERLIN - A European refugee comedy and a transgender love story are tipped to clinch prizes Saturday at the Berlin film festival, which has been dominated by criticism of rising intolerance and US President Donald Trump.

Audiences lavished applause on the cult Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's "The Other Side of Hope", his first picture in six years, and "A Fantastic Woman" by Chile's Sebastian Lelio.

The two films led a critics' poll in British film magazine Screen and played well among reviewers surveyed by the German dailies Der Tagesspiegel and Berliner Zeitung.

A seven-member jury led by Paul Verhoeven ("Basic Instinct", "Elle") and including US actress Maggie Gyllenhaal ("The Dark Knight") and Mexican director and actor Diego Luna ("Rogue One: A Star Wars Story") will hand out the Golden and Silver Bear trophies.

Last year, jury president Meryl Streep gave top honours to Italy's "Fire at Sea", a portrait of the refugee crisis on the island of Lampedusa. It is nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary this month.

The 11-day Berlinale, Europe's first major cinema showcase of the year, screened nearly 400 features, 18 of which are nominated for the main prizes.

On and off screen, celebrities and filmmakers have used the festival spotlight to sound off on Trump's policies, particularly his now suspended travel ban on refugees and travellers from seven mainly Muslim countries.

"I want people to know there are many, many people in my country that are ready to resist," Gyllenhaal told reporters as the festival opened.

Among the contenders, Kaurismaki's movie was cheered as a droll and moving call to conscience on behalf of the hundreds of thousands seeking refuge in the West from war and persecution.

It recounts the story of Khaled (Syrian actor Sherwan Haji) who ends up against his will in remote Finland and strikes up an unlikely friendship with a group of Helsinki eccentrics.

Britain's Daily Telegraph swooned over the "gorgeous, cuttingly poignant" movie. German newspaper Die Welt declared it an instant classic that was "full of warmth" and noted Kaurismaki singled out Chancellor Angela Merkel's liberal asylum policy for praise after presenting the picture.

"This film will be watched long after (Syrian President Bashar al-)Assad is history," its reviewer, Barbara Moeller, said.

"A Fantastic Woman" features a knockout performance by transgender actress Daniela Vega as a nightclub singer fighting for her right to attend the funeral of her much older lover after his sudden death.

London's Guardian gave the picture five stars, saying it could "make Vega the first transgender performer to scoop a major acting award".

Film industry bible Variety said director Lelio had "crafted perhaps the most resonant and empathetic screen testament to the everyday obstacles of transgender existence since Kimberly Peirce's 'Boys Don't Cry' in 1999".

But it noted that unlike that film or "The Danish Girl" - both of which scooped Oscars - and TV's acclaimed "Transparent", "A Fantastic Woman" featured a trans actress playing a trans part.

Oren Moverman's "The Dinner", a thriller about America's festering racial and class divisions starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Steve Coogan did less well with critics despite its topical plot.

The Guardian blasted the movie, the only US production in competition, as a "soggy melodrama" and savaged the "indigestible ham" of the main performances.

The all-star Brexit satire "The Party" fared better, with Screen calling the "brisk comedy" British director Sally Potter's "most enjoyable film to date".

Festival guests also embraced China's animated heist thriller with a political edge, "Have a Nice Day".

Eastern Europe put in a strong showing with Polish director Agnieszka Holland's feminist fairy tale "Spoor", the dysfunctional couple drama "Ana, mon amour" by Romania's Calin Peter Netzer and "On Body and Soul" by Ildiko Enyedi, a love story set in a Hungarian slaughterhouse.

And reviewers adored mesmerising performances by the lead actresses in Senegalese director Alain Gomis "Felicite" and Hong Sang-soo of South Korea's "On the Beach at Night Alone"; Vero Tshanda Beya and Kim Min-hee.