Roman Polanski\'s \"The Ghost Writer\" is among the front-runners for the top prize at the 60th Berlin Film Festival this week, despite his glaring absence at the event due to his ongoing house arrest.
As the 11-day festival, the first major world cinema showcase of the year, hit the halfway mark Tuesday, critics had shortlisted Polanski\'s political thriller based on the British bestseller "The Ghost" for the Golden Bear award.
A seven-member jury led by German director Werner Herzog ("Fitzcarraldo") and including Oscar-winning actress Renee Zellweger will hand out the honours Saturday before the Berlinale wraps up the next day.
A poll of international reviewers in industry magazine Screen put Polanski\'s picture neck-and-neck with a gritty Romanian drama set in an oppressive youth prison and starring amateur actors, "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle".
German reviewers surveyed by Berlin\'s daily Der Tagesspiegel also had the two films leading the pack of 20 contenders among those already screened.
The glowing reviews for "The Ghost Writer" may be welcome news for Polanski, 76, who is imprisoned in his Swiss chalet awaiting possible extradition to the US for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
The film stars Pierce Brosnan as a former British prime minister modelled on Tony Blair who is penning his memoirs when he is targeted in a war crimes probe.
His hired ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) begins to do his own research and uncovers a global conspiracy in the process.
"Whatever you think of Polanski as an individual, he is one hell of a film-maker," The Times of London wrote.
"With this immensely enjoyable, satisfyingly convoluted thriller he demonstrates exactly why he is still a force to be reckoned with. From the opening scene it is clear Polanski had complete control, whether or not he was behind bars when he finished it."
But some critics were left cold.
"The picture\'s literalism is its biggest handicap," industry bible Variety said.
Polanski "brings not a jot of his own directorial personality or quirks to a political pulp thriller whose weaknesses (let alone lack of any real action or thrills) are laid bare when brought to the screen in such a workmanlike, anonymous way.
And Der Tagesspiegel blasted "over-obvious" plot elements and a "strangely pat finale".
The Oscar-winning Polanski took home Berlin\'s Golden Bear in 1966 for his drama "Cul-de-sac".
"If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle" is riding a wave of popularity for Romanian cinema marked by "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" winning the Palme D\'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
"The New Romanian Wave saw another new and important contributor emerge in Berlin," Britain\'s Guardian wrote of the debut feature by Florin Serban.
In it, the 19-year-old delinquent is on the verge of release but when he learns his estranged mother is about to leave the country with his young brother, he takes a woman working in the prison hostage in a desperate bid to escape.
Denmark\'s Thomas Vinterberg also drew rave reviews for "Submarino" about two brothers struggling to overcome a brutal childhood, 12 years after he scored an art-house hit with "The Celebration".
Audiences also showered praise on the German-Austrian production "The Robber", the true story of a champion marathon runner turned serial bank robber.
Although they were screening out of competition, Martin Scorsese\'s new thriller "Shutter Island", Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan\'s new movie "My Name is Khan" and elusive street artist Banksy\'s directorial debut "Exit Through the Gift Shop" also drew cheers.
Last year\'s winner, "The Milk of Sorrow" from Peru, is now nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film.
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