There's at least one film at every festival for which journalists are willing to lose fingernails, coat buttons and substantial portions of their pride to get into, and this year it was V for Vendetta. While the film's premise sounded interesting -- a masked hero rescues futuristic England from fascism -- and its writers (brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski of Matrix fame) enjoy a cult following, there was a simpler reason for the hype: Natalie Portman.
The 24-year-old actress, who was first seen in Luc Besson's The Professional and more recently won a Golden Globe for her performance alongside Jude Law in Closer, is a superstar.
Wearing a simple linen dress, Portman reigned over the press conference following the world premiere of V for Vendetta. Her beatific smile cast a spell on her listeners and a large shadow over her co-stars (John Hurt, Stephen Rea and Hugo Weaving), director James McTeigue and larger-than-life producer Joel Silver. That she was by far the youngest and smallest person at the table, and the only woman, worked only to her advantage.
"Did you worry about shooting a film about terrorism in a European capital?" asked a Chinese journalist.
"This is a topic that's so central to dialogue today," said Portman, adding that, having been born in Israel, terrorism was always an issue in her life. "I think it's important that films raise questions, even if we don't have answers to them."
Coming from her lips, this panacea for difficult questions at festival press conferences actually rang true.
V for Vendetta, based on Alan Moore and David Lloyd's graphic novel of the same name, is set in London of the near future. The United States has crumbled under the weight of too many wars and Britain is the world's new superpower. It's a totalitarian state in the grips of ruthless Chancellor Sutler (Hurt), where Islam and homosexuality are illegal, the media is controlled by the state and bio-medical experimentation, a government pastime.
Enter V (Weaving), an indestructible, Shakespeare-quoting superhero behind a Guy Fawkes mask who's determined to restore democracy, even at the cost of some death and destruction. His first act is to blow up London's Old Bailey -- in the name of justice, he explains in a public address that echoes through the city's omnipresent loudspeakers.
One night, V saves Evey (Portman) from the claws of state police, who have caught her on the street after curfew. After taking her back to his underground grotto full of degenerate art and antique Korans, V discovers Evey to be an independent thinker. Not only is she willing to support his mission, she also recognizes the goodness in his faceless person. (And, while appearances may not count for everything, V is not unmoved by the young woman's radiant beauty.) The mask is an important symbol in the film. As V's mission reaches its climax and the forces of good and evil near their ultimate and spectacular encounter, V reassures his beloved Evey that while the mask may be shattered, the ideas behind it won't die.
Asked at the press conference how he prepared for his role, Weaving (who played Agent Smith in The M atrix) admitted that he hadn't had much lead time, neglecting to mention that he had in fact replaced the originally cast James Purefoy when the British actor was deemed to fall short of superheroism.
"It was hot in there [inside the mask]and a barrier to the other actors," said the ruddy-faced Weaving. Director McTeigue added that the Australian actor had been selected for his wonderful voice and physicality.
An Iranian journalist asked if the film might be understood to be promoting a benevolent form of terrorism.
"This is supposed to be Saturday-night entertainment, a popcorn film," said McTeigue, for whom the film is a directorial debut, "but one that provokes a lively discussion."
Setting her sights a little higher, Portman added that to act in or watch a movie is to practise empathy for other people.
"Attending a movie is a world-bettering act," she said to the room of cinephiles and critics. She was swift to put in a plug for FINCA International, a micro-financing organization she supports that provides loans to women in the developing world.
Those not yet paralyzed with adulation scribbled furiously.
V for Vendetta was shot in the Babelsberg Studios outside Berlin. When a question finally did come his way at the press conference, Silver (who also produced The Matrix and the Lethal Weapon series) raved about the Babelsberg facilities and lauded Berlin as a "city much more inviting than L.A. I intend to make many more films here," he said, refusing to elaborate.
Portman added that she finds Berlin very exciting compared with her home base in New York, whose cultural scene seems, by comparison, "done" -- an observation that got good play in Berlin papers.
Terrorism, the nature of love and human empathy aside, the paramount question was raised: How did Portman feel about having her hair shaved off for the film?
"It's so nice to shed that level of vanity," she said. "Although people really stare at you when you have a shaved head, as though you're a terrorist or something."
A more angelic terrorist is hard to imagine.
This being contemporary Berlin and not fascist London, dissent was tolerated. After the press conference, a German journalist mused, "I wish my English were better. I can't tell if she's as smart as they say she is."
But who would want to shatter such a lovely mask to find out?