Judy Davis and River Phoenix in a scene from "Dark Blood." (Berlin Film Festival )
BERLIN — Corrupt institutions, gay priests, nuclear contamination, economic hardship, environmental catastrophe, lack of health insurance and obesity — the Berlin International Film Festival kicks off Thursday with a slate of serious-minded movies whose themes are sobering, even for an event with a reputation for intense fare.
The main competition section presents 24 films navigating weighty stories set across a diversity of landscapes, from South Korea to Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and even Arizona. Boris Khlebnikov's "A Long and Happy Life," for instance, is a Russian tale of a collective farm manger who refuses to surrender to a quagmire of greed and graft, while Pia Marais' "Layla Fourie" centers on a single mother in South Africa who becomes entangled in a web of lies and deceit after an accident.
Festival director Dieter Kosslick said many films tackle topics ripped from the headlines, especially those related to the global economic slump and social imbalances.
FULL COVERAGE: Film Festivals
"Now we are seeing the collateral damage of the crisis, and its repercussions on various societies," Kosslick said, reflecting on one of the underlying currents of the 63rd edition of the sprawling festival, which is known for warmly melding politics and parties under the icy gray skies of the German capital.
Of the films competing for the top prizes, 17 are world premieres, among them "Pardé" (Closed Curtain), about two people in hiding, from Iranian director Jafar Panahi, himself stuck in a sort of limbo in Tehran.
Accused of supporting the protest movement that sprang to life after the disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Panahi was convicted of national security violations and banned from making movies for 20 years. But he has continued to work, first generating "This Is Not a Film," which he made in his own apartment, and now "Pardé," with co-director Kamboziya Partovi (Panahi and Partovi appear in the movie).
Still, there are touches of lightness among the 404 films screening over the festival's 11 days, including the opening film, Wong Kar Wai's martial-arts extravaganza "The Grandmaster." The Hong Kong director's latest work is showing out of competition, and Wong is serving as jury president this year.
Four American films are vying for the Golden and Silver Bears, although none are premiering in Berlin: Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land," Steven Soderbergh's "Side Effects," and two recent Sundance films, "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman" and David Gordon Green's "Prince Avalanche."
OSCARS 2013: Nominee list | Reactions | Trivia | Ballot | Snubs & surprises | Quiz
Screening out of competition is "Dark Blood," the final film of young actor River Phoenix, who died during production on George Sluizer's movie 20 years ago.
Notable actors expected in town include Catherine Deneuve, Jeremy Irons, Isabelle Huppert, Jude Law, Juliette Binoche, Matt Damon, Anita Ekberg and Geoffey Rush. The festival closes with a red carpet-oriented world premiere — DreamWorks Animation's star-voiced prehistoric 3-D animated adventure, "The Croods."
American films are also making a strong showing in the Panorama section this year, with works from 15 directors including Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Don Jon's Addiction"), Noah Baumbach ("Frances Ha"), Stacie Passon ("Concussion") and Travis Mathews and James Franco ("Interior. Leather Bar"). Remarking on the selections, Panorama programmer Wieland Speck declared that U.S. indie filmmaking had finally recovered from what he called the "dull days of the Bush era."
Berlin favorite Isabella Rossellini will be honored with a Berlinale Camera award during the festival, and "Mammas," her latest set of quirky nature-themed short films, will screen in the experimental Forum Expanded section. Gay film pioneer Rosa von Praunheim will also receive a Berlinale Camera, and French director Claude Lanzmann will be given an Honorary Golden Bear. Lanzmann's works, including his groundbreaking nine-and-a-half hour exploration of the Holocaust, "Shoah," will be screened in the Berlinale's Homage section.
A very different German era will be the focus of the festival's Retrospective section. "The Weimar Touch," co-curated by the Deutsche Kinemathek and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, presents 31 films made in or influenced by the Weimar period, or what followed it — from Max Ophüls' newly restored 1936 "Komedie om Geld" (The Trouble With Money), to Ernst Lubitsch's anti-Nazi comedy "To Be or Not to Be," from 1942.