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Heath Ledger maintains a high profile as he promotes the world premiere of his new Australian film, Candy, at the 2006 Berlinale, joined by several other Australians supporting the strongest representation of Australian films in years at the most political film festival in Europe, reports Helen Barlow.

Fresh from their Oscar nominations Heath Ledger, George Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman will all attend this year’s Berlin Film Festival (Feb 9 – 19). While Clooney will talk up Syriana and Hoffman will promote Capote, Ledger will support the world premiere of the new Australian movie, Candy, in which he delivers yet another riveting performance in a gut-wrenching tale of impossible love. Far from the majesty of Brokeback Mountain, Candy focuses on a pair of young, urban, artistically-inclined junkies whose heroin addiction parallels their intense love for each other, but ultimately blows it apart.

Ledger has joked about not being in it for the money - "I play a drug addict in my next movie," he told me in Venice during Brokeback's publicity rounds - and he is surely on the right track now. Somehow after over-doing it with his American stoner in Lords of Dogtown, here, speaking in his own voice after eight years of playing foreigners, he is endearing as a sweet but hopeless type who only musters up personal courage when tragedy strikes. The film is strangely uplifting as a result.

Rising star Abbie Cornish (Somersault) with her long blonde locks is truly affecting as an angel led astray. That all the performances are so moving (Tony Martin and Noni Hazlehurst as Candy’s parents are stand-outs) stems from the fact that the film, based on Luke Davies’ novel, is directed by leading Sydney theatre director, Neil Armfield, who also casts his constant collaborator Geoffrey Rush as a rich and frequently humorous aging addict. Ledger clearly wants to join the club and primarily accepted the part to work with Armfield.

Candy’s world premiere in the Berlin competition will surely attract a prize – perhaps the first of many. Golden Globe winner Hoffman, who cannily unearths Truman Capote’s demons as the American writer penned his masterpiece, In Cold Blood, will not represent any competition to Ledger’s chances--as he does in the Oscars--since Capote screens out of competition.

"the strongest representation of Australian films in years"

Overall, the Berlinale, as it’s called, has the strongest representation of Australian films in years. Opening the Kinderfilmfest Sidebar is Opal Dream, a heartwarming family drama set in the outback. Directed by the Full Monty’s Peter Cattaneo it stars Jacqueline McKenzie and Vince Colosimo and tells the story of a young girl with imaginary friends.

Screening in the Festival’s edgier Panorama sidebar is George Gittoes’ feature-length documentary Rampage, while John Hillcoat’s The Proposition is spreading its wings around the globe, also screening in Panorama. The film’s legendary writer-musician Nick Cave, who spent his formative years in Berlin and memorably appeared with the Bad Seeds in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, will attend the festival and will also be seen in Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, which is based on Cohen’s concert at the Sydney Opera House in January 2005 and features tributes to the singer from the likes of Cave, Bono and Jarvis Cocker.

Hugo Weaving will also be in Berlin alongside Natalie Portman, for the world premiere of James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta, which was shot at Berlin’s Babelsberg studios. Adapted from the graphic novel, the film was written by the Matrix’s Wachowsky brothers and tells of a masked vigilante striking out against a totalitarian state.

The Berlinale is one of the three major European film festivals. While Cannes is known for its auteurs, Venice for its stars, Berlin, the former island city located in communist Europe, is known for its politics.

"political and realistic"

“The films this year are very political and realistic across the board,” says the festival’s artistic director, Dieter Kosslick.

Of course this year political films have never been more mainstream, so that stars and auteurs in turn will brave the freezing Berlin winter to promote their very serious movies.

Clooney will certainly talk up Syriana, a labyrinth of intrigue that keeps you on your toes with its story of the CIA’s involvement in the Middle East and the oil business. The film marks the directing debut of Stephen Gaghan, the writer of Traffic, which was another film produced via Section Eight, the company founded by Clooney and Steven Soderbergh.

British director Michael Winterbottom, who took home the main Berlin prize, the Golden Bear, in 2003 for the refugee drama In This World, continues his championing of the downtrodden, with The Road to Guantanamo about three Muslims held at the US lockup in Cuba.

Eccentric Italian director Roberto Benigni, perhaps in the style of his bitter-sweet Life is Beautiful, is presenting The Tiger and the Snow, a romantic comedy set in occupied Iraq starring Benigni and his wife Nicoletta Braschi (from Life is Beautiful) Jean Reno and Tom Waits, who appeared with Benigni in Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law.

The festival is hosting numerous world premieres, kicking off with Marc Evans’ drama, Snow Cake, featuring Sigourney as an autistic woman and co-starring Alan Rickman, and following it with A Prairie Home Companion, from 80-year-old director Robert Altman, who will receive a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars this year. A typical Altman ensemble piece, the film, about a legendary radio show which is taken off the air after thirty years, boasts an all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Kevin Kline and John C. Reilly.

In Berlin tributes for lifetime achievement will be paid to British actor Ian McKellen (famously creating Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings) and Polish director Andrzej Wajda, whose career spans more than 50 years.

"a special focus "

There is a special focus this year on musicians and artists in a series of documentaries, including Glastonbury, Julien Temple's look at the history of the popular English music fest. The highest profile documentary, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, comes from Michel Gondry and takes a look at the American groundbreaking comedian.

French director Gondry, who won an Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of A Spotless Mind, is currently in fine form. He also comes to the festival with a feature film, The Science of Sleep, which was a hit at Sundance last month, where Variety called it “a fanciful dive into the imaginative world of an insecure young man (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his haphazard attempts to establish a connection with a female neighbor (Charlotte Gainsbourg), has all the visual excitement of the director's previous work”. A French production, the film is shot in French and English. Also from France comes Claude Chabrol’s Comedy of Power, a thriller focusing on the Elf oil scandal, which stars Isabelle Huppert as a powerful magistrate investigating the director of a group of companies.

Paris-based Charlotte Rampling is heading the jury, deliberating over the competition and one wonders if she will take time out to tell us what she got up to in Basic Instinct 2. Or do we care? Certainly I will be more fascinated to discover what Vin Diesel gets up to in Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty, a drama based on the longest mafia trial in US history—as the action star tries to convince us of his dramatic talent.

One film that will probably not win any prizes and has had to contend with little publicity is The New World, Terrence Malick’s story of Pocahontas. Directed by the reclusive auteur and starring Colin Farrell who has been in rehab, it is an overly long and ultimately boring movie. Maybe the Germans will appreciate it more than audiences in America, where it was trimmed by 17 minutes after its initial release. But still no-one went to see it.

The Panorama section, which boasts the largest showcase of gay and lesbian films, will this year feature Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto starring Batman villain Cillian Murphy as a transvestite cabaret singer of the 60s and 70s. Murphy certainly has the eyes for it.

Since Berlin is set to host the World Cup in the middle of the year, the festival will include two soccer films: Gerardo Olivares' La grand final, set during the World Cup in 2002; and Once in a Lifetime, Paul Crowder and John Dower's documentary about the Cosmos New York soccer team. Soccer is also at the centre of Jafar Panahi’s Offside, a comedy illustrating the fight for women’s rights in Iran through the eyes of a young girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to watch a match.

Chen Kaige's martial-arts fantasy epic, The Promise, which broke box office records when it released in China, will be shown out of competition.

Closing the festival will be Sam Peckinpah's digitally restored 1972 western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: Special Edition, based on Peckinpah's notes and with details provided by his colleagues.

As for short films, there are several Australian entries. Chris Cudlipp’s Hold, Please, is the only Australian short selected for the Competition; Dean Chircop’s Bloody Footy will screen as part of the Kinderfilmfest; and Rhys Graham’s Love This Time, and Fish by Eron Sheean will be in the Panorama.

Published February 9, 2006

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George Clooney in Syriana

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote

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