By Michael Roddy and Gareth Jones
BERLIN (Reuters) - Two powerful films, one looking at the plight of boys in Berlin abandoned by their mother, the other about an ex-convict haunted by his violent past, kicked off competition for best picture at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival on Friday.
German director Edward Berger's "Jack", starring the immensely persuasive first-time child actor Ivo Pietzcker in the title role, is the story of the 11-year-old and his blonde-haired younger brother Manuel finding their way through a labyrinth of Berlin's streets and its drugged-out nightlife.
It is the first time since 2002 that four German films are vying for the festival's top award.
French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb's "Two Men in Town", starring Forest Whitaker as a parolee whose murder of a sheriff's deputy is not going to be forgotten by the sheriff played by Harvey Keitel, pits two strong character actors against one another in a feud in a small New Mexico town.
It combines some of the relentlessness of the vengeful killer in "No Country for Old Men" with yet another plot that won't help the image of New Mexico recover from the methamphetamine business at the core of the Albuquerque-set television series "Breaking Bad".
The festival opened on Thursday with a screening of director Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel". "Jack" and "Two Men in Town" are among 20 films in competition for the Golden Bear award to be given out at the end of next week.
Berger's film shows the older of the boys rising to the challenge of survival after his unmarried mother puts him in a children's home because she cannot cope with the two at home.
Jack is bullied there and almost drowned by his main tormenter. He then runs away and embarks on an odyssey with his brother Manuel around Berlin to find his mother.
"This is not always reality but it can happen," Berger told a news conference.
Berger said he had deliberately tried not to make the film "Berlin-specific" in order to portray the universal problem of young people growing up in broken families.
"Right from the start we decided not to show the cliches," screenwriter Nele Mueller-Stoefen said. "We showed her (the mother) in a caring way, but we show Jack taking responsibility, which is something that happens often in a family."
"It was a great fun because when we did a shoot I didn't have to go to school," said the young actor Pietzcker.
By contrast, "Two Men in Town" unfolds far from the city, in the desert border country of New Mexico, where William Garnett tries to build a new life on his release from jail after 18 years, with the help of his new faith in Islam and a girlfriend played by Mexican actress Dolores Heredia.
He is also supported by his feisty parole officer, played by Britain's Brenda Blethyn, who tries to shield him from the sheriff's vindictive desire to put him back in jail.
Whitaker gives an intense portrayal of a man - calm and courteous much of the time but hungry for love - struggling to repress the raw anger that once turned him into a killer.
The film, inspired by a 1973 French film of the same name with Alain Delon, explores the interplay of humanity and rules, immigration - the long wall marking the border with Mexico is a brooding presence - and the search for personal redemption.
"I wanted to readapt completely to the Mexican border ... I met several sheriffs who ... were very sensitive to the drama of immigration, when it goes badly," director Bouchareb said.
"At the same time, there is a rigidity in the application of the laws, in the construction of the wall, there is a violence in all this," he told a news conference.
Bouchareb said he and his team spoke with political activists, police officers, prisoners, Muslim clerics and Afro-American Muslims while researching the film.
"Forest (Whitaker) gives us the American vision because we are not American," he added.
Blethyn, who played the title role in the TV detective drama "Vera", described having to work on her American accent for the film.
"One of the obstacles for me was that she (the parole officer) was from Illinois and I had all these more southern accents around me so it was hard for me to hold on to that Illinois accent. But I am told I managed it," she said.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)