'True Grit' spurs Berlin film fest start

"True Grit", an Oscar-nominated remake of the classic western, on Thursday kicks off the 61st Berlin film festival, a 10-day extravaganza of glitzy entertainment and explosive political fare.

US film-making brothers Joel and Ethan Coen and stars Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin were expected in the wintry German capital to promote the shoot-em-up's European launch at the Berlinale, one of global cinema's top showcases.

The movie, which is up for 10 Academy Awards, is screening out of competition for the festival's Golden Bear top prize, which jury president Isabella Rossellini will award to one of 16 contenders on February 19.

The Berlinale will screen nearly 400 films from 58 countries including 3D pictures from art-house directors such as Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, while Madonna may drop in to unveil out-takes from a new movie she directed, "W.E".

"Margin Call", the feature film debut of US director J.C. Chandor starring Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore and Jeremy Irons and set at an investment bank at the start of the financial crisis, will launch the competition Friday.

British actor Ralph Fiennes, a two-time Oscar nominee, is to unveil his directorial debut, "Coriolanus", a retelling of the Shakespeare tragedy about a Roman general who mounts a rebellion against the empire.

However festival director Dieter Kosslick opted for less Hollywood and more Sundance this year, with 20 films from January's independent movie showcase in Utah due in Berlin, often a key stepping stone to an international cinema run.

"Kosslick seems to have placed less of an emphasis on the fame of the directors and actors this year and that's a mark in his favour," Lars-Olav Beier, film critic for Der Spiegel magazine, told AFP.

"Better to have good films from unknowns than mediocre films with stars."

Iranian film-maker Asghar Farhadi, who won a best director prize for his haunting drama "About Elly" at the 2009 festival, will be back with "Nader and Simin, A Separation" about an estranged couple reunited by a surprise event.

Farhadi faced a production ban by Iranian authorities while making the film for comments in support of dissident director Jafar Panahi, whom the festival will honour this year. The ban was later lifted.

Iranian authorities slapped Panahi, widely known for award-winning films such as "The Circle" and "Offside", with a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year film-making ban in December.

He was convicted of "propaganda against the system" for making a film about unrest after the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. The 50-year-old is free on bail but cannot travel abroad.

In keeping with its reputation for political engagement, the Berlinale invited Panahi to serve on its jury and will screen nearly all of his films as a tribute to him in his absence.

The festival will also feature a raft of hard-hitting documentaries including a film about the jailed Russian former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Unknown vandals stole material from the picture from director Cyril Tuschi's Berlin offices last week and the film-maker has reportedly gone into hiding.

Last year's Golden Bear prize went to Turkish drama "Bal" starring a seven-year-old boy as a struggling pupil who loses his father in a freak accident.

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