Whitaker shines as Islam convert in Berlinale contender

French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb's "Two Men in Town" is one of 20 films vying for the Berlin festival's Golden Bear top prize

AFP, Saturday 8 Feb 2014,
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Berlin
From left, actress Dolores Heredia, director Rachid Bouchareb, actors Forest Whitaker and actress Brenda Blethyn at the 64th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin. (Photo: AP)

Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker stars as a convicted cop killer looking for a second chance in America after his conversion to Islam, in a warmly received Berlin film festival contender Friday.

In Two Men in Town by French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb, Whitaker's character William Garnett tries to go on the straight and narrow after his release from a New Mexico prison with the help of a sympathetic parole officer played by British actress Brenda Blethyn.

But the town's sheriff (Harvey Keitel), an otherwise upstanding law and order man who tries to deal fairly with the tide of illegal immigrants coming over the Mexican border, is enraged to see Garnett as a free man two decades after he killed his own deputy police officer.

Garnett turns to Islam while still incarcerated and once free, quickly finds work as a ranch hand, a room in a halfway house and even the love of a bank teller (Dolores Heredia) who emigrated from Mexico a decade before.

But the sheriff stands in his way at every turn and his old partner-in-crime (Luis Guzman) will not take no for an answer when Garnett tries to break ties.

The picture is a remake of a 1973 French classic starring Alain Delon and Jean Gabin but Bouchareb said he borrowed only the basic outlines of the original story to make an up-to-date film about the social and political landscape of today's America.

"My films are always influenced by issues such as migration of people, immigration, crossing borders, how cultures interact -- these are themes in all of my films," he said, also highlighting the introduction of anti-Islamic prejudice to the story.

Bouchareb, 60, is best known for the groundbreaking 2006 drama Days of Glory (Indigenes), about north Africans serving in the French army during World War II.

The Texas-born Whitaker, who won an Oscar in 2007 for his turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and garnered rave reviews last year in "The Butler", said the cross-cultural dynamics on set played into the filmmaking.

"We talked about what it would be like to convert to Islam, how you'd be perceived as a possible terrorist, if you'd be perceived as someone who was against the country, what it would be like to be a black man who had a criminal past but who lives in this town," he said.

"The film was from Rachid's mind but I just offered a few insights into the pressures that this man is under," said Whitaker, 52, who drew a big round of applause from critics after a preview ahead of a gala premiere Friday night.

Blethyn, who starred in Bouchareb's 2009 drama "London River" about the 7/7 bombings, transforms herself into a gun-toting desert law-woman who believes in giving hardened ex-cons a fresh chance to integrate into society.

"I spent some time with a parole officer in Albuquerque and she took me through the ropes of her daily routine," Blethyn, 67, said.

"It's such a tough job -- personally, I could go nowhere near that job... She taught me a trick or two so don't any of you get lairy with me," she joked.

Two Men in Town is one of 20 films vying for the Berlin festival's Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded on February 15.

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