Cillian Murphy opens Berlin film fest with Irish scandal

Oscar nominee Cillian Murphy will open Berlin’s international film festival Thursday with the world premiere of a drama about Ireland’s notorious laundries used as prison camps for “fallen” young women.

“Small Things Like These”, based on the bestselling novel by Claire Keegan and co-starring Michelle Fairley (“Game of Thrones”) and Emily Watson (“Chernobyl”), is one of 20 pictures vying for the festival’s Golden Bear top prize.

Kenyan-Mexican actor Lupita Nyong’o is serving as the first black jury president at the event known as the Berlinale, which is now in its 74th year.

With the plight of Iran’s women, the Gaza war and the resurgent far right expected to touch off debate and possiblly protests during the event, Nyong’o said she was looking forward to a challenging festival.

“I think what we’re here to do is to see how artists are responding to the world we are living in right now,” she told reporters. “I’m curious to see what they’re making of it.”  

The 11-day cinema showcase has the strongest political bent of Europe’s big three festivals and serves as a key launchpad for films from around the world.

‘Stand against injustice’

The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Roxborough said the Berlinale’s outgoing director duo, Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian, had been dealt a “difficult hand” with the coronavirus pandemic casting a long shadow over the last three years.

He told AFP he predicted more “excitement” this year on both the red carpet and at the festival’s sprawling European Film Market, where movie rights are bought and sold for global distribution.

“The old spirit should be back again at this Berlinale,” he said.

In “Small Things Like These”, Murphy, who is nominated for an Academy Award next month for his turn in the biopic “Oppenheimer”, reunites with Belgian film-maker Tim Mielants, who directed him in the hit series “Peaky Blinders”.

Murphy plays a devoted father who unearths shocking secrets about the convent in his town linked to one of modern Ireland’s biggest scandals: the Magdalene laundries, penitentiary workhouses run by the Roman Catholic church from the 1820s until the 1990s.

Most of the laundries’ residents were ostracised “fallen women” who had become pregnant outside marriage. Others included rape victims, orphans, prostitutes and the disabled.

“We are confident that this story that allies the kindness to be directed to the more fragile, and the willpower to stand up against injustice, will resonate with everyone,” Chatrian said.

Lifetime award for Scorsese

Adam Sandler will present his latest Netflix release “Spaceman”, about a lonely astronaut who seeks the help of an alien when he becomes estranged from his wife, played by Carey Mulligan.

Mexico’s Gael Garcia Bernal appears in “Another End”, which envisions a technology allowing the bereaved to reconnect with the dead. Cannes best actress winners Renate Reinsve (“The Worst Person in the World”) and Berenice Bejo (“The Artist”) co-star.

Immigration drama “La Cocina” starring Rooney Mara promises to be a “tragic and comic tribute to the invisible people who prepare our food” in the world’s restaurants.

And in one of the most attention-grabbing titles of the line-up, “Pepe” imagines the inner life of a hippopotamus from Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s private menagerie.

Martin Scorsese, nominated for a record 10th time for a best director Oscar for “Killers of the Flower Moon”, is due in Berlin to collect an Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement.

Iran’s Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha have said they’ve been barred from travelling to Berlin to premiere their feminist competition entry “My Favourite Cake”.

With far-right parties on the march around the globe, the festival will spotlight cinema that examines Germany’s Nazi past.

“Treasure” features Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham in a drama about a Holocaust survivor and his daughter who return together to his Polish hometown and Auschwitz.

And German drama “From Hilde, With Love” starring Liv Lisa Fries (“Babylon Berlin”) tells the true story of a couple at the heart of the “Red Orchestra” resistance group in 1942.