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Berlin at midgame

With five days still to play at the 44th Berlinale, competition boss Moritz de Hadeln had three slam dunks, a lot of rim shots and several complete misses.

Hollywood has provided two of the three festival hits so far, “Philadelphia” and “In the Name of the Father,” with only the Cuban co-prod “Strawberry and Chocolate” emerging from the crowd to give the big American titles a run for their money.

The latter pic, a meld of gay issues and local politics explored through the relationship between a sociology student and a flamboyant homosexual, arrived with positive buzz from its Havana fest screenings, where the still-taboosubject created waves. Within hours of its Feb. 12 competition unspooling, Cuban state film agency ICAIC suddenly found it had the hottest title on its hands in years.

Following an iffy opener — Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha,” which drew some disciples but left others unconvinced — the main competition has thrown up few unexpected baubles so far. Alain Resnais’ twin set “Smoking/No Smoking,” though politely received, failed to set auds alight, and “Three Colors: White,” second seg of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s tricolor trilogy, though well-received, isn’t yet generating the critical raves of “Blue.”

Both “Philadelphia” and “Father” gave the fest a welcome midterm jolt, drawing enthusiastic receptions at their eveningscreenings at the Zoo Palast theater. Though “Philadelphia” director Jonathan Demme and star Denzel Washington didn’t show, Tom Hanks energetically worked the interview circuit and drew a 10-minute standing ovation Tuesday, reportedly the longest since Dustin Hoffman’s appearance here with “Rain Man” in 1989.

The following night, “Father” helmer Jim Sheridan and many of the leading players (though not Daniel Day-Lewis) also drew hearty approbation.

De Hadeln vigorously denied to reporters that he was disgruntled with “unkept promises” by some Yank majors to deliver big-name stars and directors. Though Demme, Washington, Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins (“The Remains of the Day”) are among the no-shows this year, director Peter Weir and thesp Isabella Rossellini made the trip for “Fearless” (which drew mixed reactions), and Al Pacino is skedded to arrive Sunday for “Carlito’s Way,” in an out-of-competition slot.

Though most directors have come here with their pix, there’s a growing feeling among festgoers that the Berlinale should build on its strengths as a showcase for Euro/international and U.S. indie fare, rather than going head-to-head with Cannes and Venice for A-list Yank glitz. De Hadeln had earlier lost “Schindler’s List” as a title to platform the fest, despite statements that this year’s event would see “America and Europe coming together” in the future German capital.

Not much else

Though buzz is running high on Ken Loach’s “Ladybird Ladybird,” set to screen Saturday, not much else in the competition has helped to raise Berlin’s sub-freezing temperatures. Busts by name helmers have included Aussie Paul Cox’s “Exile” and Hungarian Marta Meszaros’ “Foetus.”

Tonie Marshall’s second feature, the female midlife detective comedy “Something Fishy,” drew mixed responses, though all praised French actress Anemone’s lived-in lead perf, and stateside distribution seems likely. Alessando Di Robilant’s mafia-busting drama “Law of Courage” went down OK, but Wu Ziniu’s “Sparkling Fox,” though solid, was seen to lack the special smarts of recent high-profile Chinese pix.

Most of the discoveries so far have centered on the Panorama section, traditionally a safety net for competition turndowns plus more offbeat fare. Lasse Hallstrom’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” drew many supporters, and U.S. low-budgeter “Federal Hill,” a gang drama by first-time director Michael Corrente, also attracted positive buzz. Maurizio Zaccaro’s “L’Articolo 2,” about Algerian immigrants in Italy, was warmly received.

Still to screen outside the market, but generating the biggest anticipatory buzz among buyers and critics, is the China-Hong Kong co-prod “Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker,” by He Ping, helmer of “Swordsman in Double-Flag Town.”

Despite the usual packed screenings and enthusiastically supported midnight chopsocky shows, the Forum section has featured few new gems so far, though the Indonesian “Letter to an Angel” and Mika Kaurismaki’s docu “Tigrero,” featuring Sam Fuller, had their vocal supporters.

Shortage of discoveries has reportedly caused consternation among the Forum jury, which is considering breaking with precedent and making its award to a non-Forum pic. The Fipresci (international critics’) jury, which trawls only competition and Forum titles, is also reported to be at sixes and sevens so far.

Aside from time-consuming lines at the Press Center for tickets, and occasional projection snafus, organization has been up to the Berlinale’s traditionally high standards. A pileup involving a fest shuttle bus rattled some Yanks but most of the casualties so far have been on rather than off screen.

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