"Jerichow," a love triangle by Berlin-based director Christian Petzold, screened at the Venice Film Festival on Thursday, the first German entry competing for the Golden Lion since 2004. It faces strong competition from the United States and Italy.
A tragic story of love, money and death that is set in the poor, northeastern part of Germany, "Jerichow" shines with brilliant acting, especially by Nina Hoss, who has worked with Petzold before.
How will the Venice jury, led by German filmmaker Wim Wenders, receive this intimate study of calculation, passion and longing?
The film opens as Thomas (Benno Fuermann), an angular, laconic ex- soldier who has been dishonourably discharged, arrives in the depressed Prignitz region, the dpa reported.
He strikes up a friendship with Ali (Hilmi Soezer), a Turkish immigrant who has achieved prosperity as the owner of 45 snack bars.
Thomas falls in love with Ali's wife, Laura (Nina Hoss). Petzold captures the ensuing entanglements in both quiet takes and loud scenes as the protagonists perform their impossible tightrope walk amid a land of hopelessness.
"You can't love each other when you've got no money," says Laura disconsolately of her dead-end affair with Thomas.
She is financially dependent on mistrustful, terminally ill Ali, who remarks: "I live in a country that doesn't want me, with a woman that I bought."
As in his earlier films "Yella" and "The State I Am In" ("Die Innere Sicherheit") Petzold, 47, explores the frontier between life and death.
Looming larger in "Jerichow," however, is unfulfilled - and unfulfillable - longing. In Petzold's view, when men like Ali build themselves a "home," it often becomes a "maximum security unit" for women.
Another film making a bid on the Lido for the Golden Lion is "Achilles and the Tortoise," by Japanese director Takeshi Kitano. It is quite a nice entry, and also nice and long. Kitano's film is the conclusion of a trilogy about art and entertainment.
Its main protagonist is Machisu, who has had nothing but drawing and painting on his mind since childhood. As an adult, he ruins his entire family with his obsession.
Though unable to sell a single canvas all his life, his passion is so great that he shrinks neither from self-mutilation nor the brink of death. The story's moral: Commercial success and critical acclaim are unimportant - all that matters is art.
While none of the four Italian films in competition have been shown yet, Sandro Bondi, Italy's culture minister, countered criticism of the high number by the Hamburg-based news magazine Der Spiegel. "Home field advantage," Bondi quipped.
He defended the festival's artistic director, Marco Mueller, saying that Mueller had been "absolutely independent" in choosing this year's line-up.
For years, Bondi noted, the major film nation Italy had taken flak for being conspicuous by its absence on the Lido. After the country's successes at the latest festival in Cannes, he said, it was only natural that Italy be well represented in Venice.
"The world loves Italy and its cinema," he declared.
Actually, Thursday was supposed to be a carefree summer day when Italy celebrated itself and its festival.
For one thing, there was a groundbreaking ceremony for a new, 70- million-euro festival complex that is scheduled for completion in 2011, when the nation marks the 150th anniversary. Then the old Golden Lions at the present Palazzo can retire.
And finally, "Valentino: The Last Emperor" created a stir Thursday. A documentary by Matt Tyrnauer, editor-at-large at the American magazine Vanity Fair, it puts a spotlight on the glamour and skill of the haute couture czar.
An exclusive fashion party dedicated to Valentino was planned in the evening at Venice's Peggy Guggenheim Foundation - with eagerly awaited film stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Uma Thurman.