By Mike Collett-White
BERLIN (Reuters) - Directors from around the world have tried to recreate the drama and trauma of captivity at this year's Berlin film festival, though not all of them found a captive audience.
From kidnapping to political repression, and from a queen trapped in her palace to detainees on death row, how humans behave when their freedom is denied them has dominated the annual cinema showcase so far.
Half of the 18 movies in the festival's competition have screened and reviews so far have been only average overall.
But home entry "Barbara" is the critics' early favorite to win the Golden Bear for best picture at the closing ceremony on Saturday, which would be the first German winner since "Head-On" in 2004.
Film festival juries are notoriously hard to second guess, however, and the 2012 panel led by British director Mike Leigh is unlikely to be any different.
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt braved sub-zero temperatures to walk the red carpet at the weekend and add celebrity wattage to the Berlinale, while Oscar hopeful Meryl Streep receives a lifetime achievement award on Valentine's Day.
Billy Bob Thornton directs and stars in "Jayne Mansfield's Car" which premieres late on Monday.
And festival goers, looking for light relief from a generally gritty selection of films, flocked to see sci-fi spoof "Iron Sky," about Nazis who launch a "Meteorblitzkrieg" on Earth from their base on the dark side of the moon.
SHAKESPEARE FOR CRIMINALS
In the main competition, popular docu-drama "Caesar Must Die" was filmed inside a tough Italian jail.
The film follows "mafiosi," murderers and drug dealers as they rehearse for a jail production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," a process which convicts serving sentences of between 14 years and life find liberating.
The playwright's preoccupation with loyalty, revenge and murder clearly resonates with the hardened criminals, and helps them produce performances at once powerful and convincing.
But for all the positives that come out of the play, it also serves to remind inmates of what they are missing.
"Ever since I discovered art, this cell has truly become a prison," says Cosimo Rega, who played Cassius, as he returns to his cell after the final performance. Most of the "actors" remain behind bars.
Out of competition, Germany's Werner Herzog presents his critique of capital punishment called "Death Row," about prisoners in the United States awaiting execution.
And French director Frederic Videau was inspired by the real-life kidnapping and incarceration of Austrian schoolgirl Natascha Kampusch when he made "Coming Home."
Like Kampusch, his character Gaelle is held in a basement for eight years before escaping from her captor, but Videau deliberately avoided researching that case in order to create what he called "pure fiction."
Gaelle's relationship with captor Vincent is central to the movie, which explores how, over time, the dynamics between them changes leaving Gaelle as the dominant figure as often as not.
POLITICAL, RELIGIOUS CAPTIVITY
Filipino film maker Brillante Mendoza was also inspired by a true story in "Captive," based on the 2001 kidnapping of a group of locals and foreigners by the Abu Sayyaf militant group.
Mendoza's feature stars French actress Isabelle Huppert as one of a group held hostage in the jungle for about a year.
She builds bonds with her captors, but moments of kindness and tenderness are interspersed with killing and rape to unsettle viewers throughout.
"Farewell My Queen" was the festival's opening film this year, and Diane Kruger stars as Marie Antoinette living at Versailles as the French Revolution of 1789 ignites around her.
The king and queen are prisoners in their own home once Louis XVI decides not to flee the angry mob, and Antoinette, resigned to her own fate, seeks to rescue the one she loves.
Reviews for the lavish costume drama were mixed, but those for "Barbara" have been overwhelmingly positive.
Director Christian Petzold seeks to recreate the political oppression of Communist East Germany through a central character who is banished from Berlin to the provinces because she requests a move to West Germany.
Another competition film, "Meteora," similarly explores the conflict between individual freedom and broader restrictions, in a tale of a Greek monk and Russian nun who tussle with a choice between the desires of the flesh and their faith.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)