Women headline Berlin film fest's breakout hits

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Fierce performances by lead actresses lit up the screens Sunday at the 63rd Berlinale which, after Cannes shunned female filmmakers in its competition last year, also has three women directors in the race.

In the first real favourite to emerge at the 11-day festival, the bittersweet Chilean film "Gloria" drew loud cheers at its world premiere, followed by an enthusiastic reception for France's "The Nun" starring Isabelle Huppert and Belgian breakout star Pauline Etienne.

Paulina Garcia turns in what critics called a luminous performance in "Gloria", which tells the story of a divorcee pushing 60 who is determined to seek happiness despite the knocks life has in store for her.

"Gloria is like Rocky: she takes a hit, picks herself up and gets back out there," said director Sebastian Lelio, 38, who said he took inspiration from his mother's friends.

"Hitting your 60s doesn't mean the same thing as it used to mean in the old days. No, a new chapter of your life can begin.

"There are Glorias in France, Italy, Spain... there are Glorias all over the place. It's about the fundamental rights of a certain generation."

A mother of two grown children who love her but have their own lives, Gloria deals with her loneliness by going to dance parties for mature singles where she meets a former military officer in his 60s, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez).

They begin a passionate affair, shown in explicit love scenes, yet he is still entangled in the lives of his estranged wife and adult daughters who phone him incessantly at inopportune moments.

Torn between what he sees as his traditional family responsibilities and his budding love, Rodolfo repeatedly lets Gloria down and then begs her forgiveness until one day he goes too far.

"There have been huge changes in recent times for women, and some men have got rather left behind, they haven't been so free, mature, emotionally intelligent and so on so as to keep up with these changes," Hernandez said.

Although the film never overtly deals with Chile's two-decade-long military dictatorship, it forms a constant backdrop to the intensely personal portrait of a woman who, like her country, is seeking a new beginning.

"These are people who have seen all the changes that Chile has been through," Garcia said.

"That is what we were trying to say with 'Gloria', not only that you can survive those bad times -- anything that you can go through including a coup -- but that you can reinvent yourself."

"Gloria" is the first Chilean film in the Berlinale competition since 1991.

"The Nun", based on a novel by Enlightenment philosopher Diderot, features Etienne in a brave performance as Suzanne, a teenager in pre-Revolution France who is committed to a convent against her will.

Huppert also drew warm applause for her turn as a Mother Superior who becomes sexually infatuated with her young charge. The actress said she had some sympathy for her character, whom she called "very human".

"It was so natural but maybe that was the scandal: when a feeling is so natural there is nothing you can do against it," she said.

Director Guillaume Nicloux said he saw the story of Suzanne's struggle to escape the religious order as a still contemporary "ode to liberty" and an indictment of fanaticism then and now.

Beyond a raft of films centred on female protagonists, three women directors are competing in Berlin including Malgoska Szumowska, who made a well-received drama about a gay priest, as well as Pia Marais with the South African thriller "Layla Fourie" and Emmanuelle Bercot's "On My Way" starring Catherine Deneuve.

Cannes drew protests last May for its all-male slate of prize contenders.

The Berlinale jury president, Chinese director Wong Kar Wai, will hand out the festival's awards at a gala ceremony Saturday.

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