Refugees documentary in frame for Berlin film fest prizes
"Fire at Sea", a harrowing documentary about Europe's refugee crisis, looked the favourite to clinch the Berlin film festival's Golden Bear top prize Saturday from a jury led by Meryl Streep.
Italian director Gianfranco Rosi's picture led critics' polls in British trade magazine Screen and the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel among 18 contenders at Europe's first major cinema showcase of the year.
Reviewers called it a strong year at the Berlinale, with other features in the frame including "24 Weeks," a powerful German drama about late-term abortion, and "Hedi," a moving Tunisian love story set against the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Points for audacity and ambition went to Lav Diaz's eight-hour-long historical epic, "A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery," which drew cheers from an exhausted audience at its premiere.
"Fire at Sea" takes a close, hard look at life on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, off whose coast thousands of migrants trying to reach the EU have drowned.
Screen hailed it as a "powerful, at times shocking but also intensely human documentary" while the German daily Berliner Zeitung called the film "devastating" at a time when the humanitarian crisis is sowing deep divisions in Europe.
The other documentary in competition, Academy Award winner Alex Gibney's "Zero Days", was touted as exposing the secret scope of the US cyber warfare programme.
British newspaper the Guardian gave it four out of five stars, calling it an "intriguing, disturbing watch".
Audiences also warmed to Yang Chao's "Crosscurrent," a poetic Chinese drama about the passage of time in a society in upheaval as symbolised by the flow of the Yangtze River.
"The power of images, the stream of consciousness in the storytelling, the enigmatic magic of its love story -- it all hits home," Berlin public broadcaster RBB said.
For the Silver Bear best actress gong, three-time Oscar winner Streep and her jury including British actor Clive Owen were spoiled for choice.
French screen legend Isabelle Huppert wowed audiences with her dignified, soulful turn in "Things to Come" as a philosophy teacher whose marriage falls apart just as her elderly mother dies.
Film industry bible Variety said "Mia Hansen-Love and Isabelle Huppert prove a dream partnership in the director's gorgeous, heart-cradling post-divorce drama... further staking (Huppert's) claim as our greatest living actress".
One of Denmark's biggest stars, Trine Dyrholm, also delivered an indelible portrait of a wronged woman in "The Commune," Thomas Vinterberg's semi-autobiographical take on his 1970s childhood, giving Julia Jentsch as the anguished expectant mother "24 Weeks" a run for her money.
And hotshot Polish director Tomasz Wasilewski, 35, garnered applause for "United States of Love", his portrait of the pivotal 1989-90 period in his country as told through four women, played by some of Poland's best-known stage actresses, at crossroads in their lives.
The Hollywood Reporter called it a "bracing cold shower of East European bleak-chic" that "combines stylistic rigour, serious intent and a fine ensemble cast".
Critics said Britain's Colin Firth and Jude Law had a shot at the best actor prize for Michael Grandage's drama "Genius" about the fruitful partnership of acclaimed American book editor Max Perkins and the novelist Thomas Wolfe.
US actor Michael Shannon also stood out for his performance in a supernatural story about parenthood, "Midnight Special", his latest collaboration with Texas-based director Jeff Nichols.
And a tender coming-of-age tale about two gay teenagers by French veteran Andre Techine, "Being 17" could see its young stars Kacey Mottet Klein and Corentin Fila recognised.
Following last year's Golden Bear win for Iranian dissident director Jafar Panahi's innovative "Taxi", the fanciful Iranian detective story "A Dragon Arrives!" attracted fans.
The festival's biggest disappointment was the new adaptation of international bestseller "Alone in Berlin", a Nazi-era thriller based on a true story about a couple who mounted a postcard propaganda campaign to oppose Hitler.
The picture starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson filmed in English dashed high expectations.
"'The book was so much better!' is a regular and fairly useless critique of literary adaptations, but it's true that this is probably a story better read than watched," US movie website Indiewire said.