Geoffrey Rush in The Best Offer.

Australians made themselves known at the Berlin Film Festival this year - and not just in Australian films.

Italian Cinema Paradiso director Giuseppe Tornatore's The Best Offer may be replete with Baroque excess, but who better to throw into the European realm of high art than our own Geoffrey Rush?

His turn as a repressed auctioneer, who can spot a fake painting at a million miles but cannot read human beings at all, marks an impressive turn for the Melbourne-based Oscar-winning actor.

Rush's Virgil Oldman character is in fact a virgin. When he finally manages to fall in love with Claire, a mysterious young woman who closes herself off from the world, he is restricted to talking with her on the telephone. Initially he had only wanted to sell her family's valuable artworks and eventually gets more than he bargained for.

"The actress who played Claire had to be European and completely unknown to maintain the mystique," Rush says of nubile Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks, 29. "She fitted the bill perfectly."

Up-and-coming British actor Jim Sturgess (The Way Back, Cloud Atlas), who is set to make an erotic drama alongside Kristen Stewart for Secretary director Steven Shainberg, clearly got on well with the Australian acting powerhouse in The Best Offer.

"Geoffrey is larger than life and charming in every way and he's great with women," Sturgess muses. "Only in the movies would I be giving him advice about women!"

Rush is staying on in the German capital to film the World War II drama The Book Thief, co-starring Emily Watson and to be directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey).

Miranda Otto has also greatly impressed at the festival in her role as the New York Pulitzer prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop in Brazilian director Bruno Barreto's Reaching for the Moon.

Set in 1951, the film recounts Bishop's travels to Rio de Janeiro to visit a college friend, Mary, and her falling in love with Mary's dashing female partner, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares (the remarkable Brazilian, Gloria Pires) who would go on to design the city's Flamengo Park.

After Lota falls for Elizabeth, the three women form an unusual family, with Mary very much on the outer raising their child, though ultimately wreaking a bit of payback. In the emotionally-charged story, Bishop evolves from a delicate introvert into a strong creative force.

"Elizabeth Bishop was an intensely private person and I wondered how much of her I should show," notes Otto, the daughter of Barry Otto and wife of Peter O'Brien. "I sent my dad a rough cut of the movie and he was really moved by it."

Initially Barreto had been urged to cast a bigger name, but when a certain star dropped out from the project - not wanting to spend a chunk of time in Brazil - he was pleased to find a willing participant in the adventurous Australian.

"I don't know why people wouldn't want to spend time in Rio," Otto says. "I guess it's hard when you've got kids. I knew when I made the commitment that my daughter Darcey (now seven) would have to go out of school for periods, and that Pete and Darcey would have to come across a number of times, and that I would have to spend a reasonable chunk of my salary on airfares. But I really wanted to do this."

In Berlin her commitment was vindicated.

"The film met with a very warm reaction at last night's premiere and I was thrilled," Otto says with a smile.

Australian films, many of which have previously screened at other film festivals, figured strongly this year in Berlin, with five features, two documentaries, seven shorts and Jane Campion's six-hour TV series Top of the Lake in the program.

There was also a selection of Australian and New Zealand films in the section NATIVe - A Journey into Indigenous Cinema.

The stand-out features included Catriona McKenzie's wonderfully moving Satellite Boy, which has screened at the Toronto and PIAF film festivals, and Kim Mordaunt's The Rocket, about a 10-year-old Laotian boy striving to prove his worth to his family.

Screen magazine commended the Australia-Laos-Thai production for offering "a fascinating insight into a country rarely seen on screen".

Both films were part of the Generation Kplus sidebar.


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