Fest opens, preps for expanded mart

The 56th Berlin Film Festival kicks off today with a gala screening of the U.K.-Canadian co-production “Snow Cake” — a rather low-key opening salvo but one whose title at least is in keeping with the wintry weather now dominating the city. Stars Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver are expected to grace the red carpet tonight.

Fest topper Dieter Kosslick, now in his fifth year as head of the Berlinale, will do the honors as he meets and greets local dignitaries at the Berlinale Palast as well as the first wave of film aficionados and foreign film execs to hit town for the 11-day extravaganza.

This Berlinale is indeed pumped up, largely because of the expanded European Film Market, which for the first time has taken over the imposing 19th century Martin Gropius Bau. There are some 250 exhibitors, up 50% over last year, and a record number of films vying for deals around the world.

EFM topper Beki Probst is betting that the boost will pay off in terms of deals signed and relationships firmed up.

Even before the festival geared up, there was local buzz about the five German entries in competition, with particularly strong word of mouth for Oskar Roehler’s “The Elementary Particles.”

Indeed, the hottest tickets on the eve of the fest were “Particles” and Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana,” which nabbed two Oscar nominations Jan. 31. French auteur Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep” and Terrence Malick’s “The New World” were also SRO by Wednesday night.

Other movies, in and out of competition, are likely to set the Berlinale on its ear.

“Syriana,” a critique of the global oil industry starring George Clooney and Matt Damon that has not yet opened in Europe, fits the profile of the quintessential controversial Berlin fave and may indeed set the tone for the fest as a whole.

The competition features 26 films from a dozen countries and is loaded with sex and politics as salient themes.

One of the most likely pics to spark debate is Michael Winterbottom’s “Road to Guantanamo,” which recently moved fest topper Kosslick to say he’d like nothing better than to see the roughly 430 prisoners from that American detention camp in Cuba here on the red carpet.

Among the U.S. pics up for the Golden Bear are Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” the director’s take on the long-running radio format created by Garrison Keillor, which screens Monday, and Sidney Lumet’s “Find Me Guilty,” toplining Vin Diesel as a mob boss. Celebs from both pics are expected to fly in for glad-handing and hobnobbing.

Several other U.S. pics are screening out of competition, including Malick’s “The New World” and “V for Vendetta,” which Andy and Larry Wachowski wrote and exec produced. Philip Seymour Hoffman is supposedly en route to tubthump “Capote,” and Natalie Portman is coming to support “V for Vendetta.”

Iranian pics are also back in style in the competition after an almost 20-year absence from the German capital, with two in the main bar and three in other sections. And from Egypt comes that country’s biggest-budgeted pic ever, “The Yacoubian Building,” which broaches homosexuality, a near taboo in Arab cinema.

And perennially neglected next-door neighbor Austria scored a coup with its first competition entry in two decades, “Slumming,” which could propel local helmer Michael Glawogger to wider recognition.

But Eastern European pics, which historically represented an eye on the world behind the Iron Curtain, are nowadays scantily represented; Italy, too, is making only a modest showing at the festival this time.

In short, it’s a mostly Western European sensibility that dominates the selection at this edition, with Germany, Scandinavia and France repping the bulk of the titles screened, in both official sections and special showings.

The Panorama section, under the aegis of Wieland Speck, opens today with one of the most off-the-wall works of the entire fest, “Brothers of the Head,” a mockumentary about Siamese twins who double as rock musicians.

For those interested in more straightforward docudrama, there’s Mary Harron’s “The Notorious Bettie Page,” about the racy ’50s pinup, which also screens in the Panorama section.

As for the first Talent Campus workshop on Sunday, it’s called Eat and Shoot the Indie Way, which will feature Slow Food guru Carlo Petrini talking to filmmakers about slowing down and improving the process.

Finally, rumor has it that Aussie rocker Nick Cave, who once lived in Berlin and got his start here, will be on hand at Potsdamer Platz to promote both the film he scored and scripted (“The Proposition”) and the one he appears in (“Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man”). Whether he’ll perform for the crowd is an open question.

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