Glamour is set to walk hand in hand with politics along the red carpet at this year's Berlinale.

First, there's the opening Cold Mountain bonanza tonight (Feb 5) fronted by Anthony Minghella, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Brendan Gleeson - although Nicole Kidman will be a no-show and Jude Law and Renee Zellweger were still unconfirmed at press time.

The stars will continue to roll in thereafter: Charlize Theron for Monster, Cate Blanchett for The Missing, Robin Williams for Final Cut, Jack Nicholson for Something's Gotta Give (co-star Frances McDormand will be in town for the whole festival, as competition jury president).

This year, though, even more than usual, these eddies of Hollywood action look like distractions from the serious business of film, which stands revealed in this year's strong, sober competition line-up full of heavyweight auteurs and ambitious up and coming talents.

Festival director Dieter Kosslick has pointed to the political content of many of the films in and out of competition.

Three films in the running for the Golden Bear deal with the aftermath of bad politics, the search for closure in the wake of three human tragedies that were created and nurtured by political cadres: apartheid (John Boorman's UK-South African collaboration The Country Of My Skull), the Serbo-Croatian war (Vinko Bresan's Witnesses, from Croatia) and the Vietnam war (Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland's Beautiful Country, which was produced by Terrence Malick).

For ongoing, agit-prop political cinema one has to look to the Panorama Dokumente section, which includes The Yes Men, the story of a No Global hoax at the expense of the WTO; Trollywood, which focuses on the homeless people who live just a shuffle away from Sunset Boulevard; and Digna' Worthy To The Final Breath, an investigation into the murder of Mexican human rights activist Digna Ochoa y Placido.

Perhaps the rawest and most newsworthy of all these documentaries is Death In Gaza, which began as a film about Palestinian suicide bombers, then turned into an indictment and a memorial when co-director James Miller was shot dead by the Israeli military.

Every major festival has pundits looking for global shifts and new territories. But Kosslick's announcement that South Africa and Latin America are being spotlighted this year is only one of the cuts that can be made to a well-shuffled pack.

The Latin American claim rests mainly on two strong competition contenders, Maria Full Of Grace, a film about a 17-year-old drug mule which created a splash at Sundance and which is actually more US than Colombian (US director Joshua Marston developed the film in a Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and it was majority-produced by HBO); and Lost Embrace by Argentinian director Daniel Burman, who delighted Berlin critics and audiences in 2002 with Every Stewardess Goes To Heaven.

In both numerical and qualitative terms, Scandinavia is a major presence this year. Bjorn Runge's Daybreak, the first Swedish film in competition at the Berlinale since 1996, is a tight and powerful adult drama that scooped four awards at the national Guldbagga awards.

Berlin regular Annette K Olesen returns two years after Minor Mishaps with a much sterner offering, In Your Hands, a resonant moral drama set in the women's wing of a Danish prison. (This is also one of the last Dogme films: it was approved by the Secretariat just before its closure in July 2002).

In other sections, Danish coming-of-age film Kick n' Rush, Finnish comedy Pearls And Pigs, and Just Bea, the third film from Norwegian director Petter Naess - whose Elling was a surprise arthouse hit last year - have all been stirring interest.

Asian cinema watchers may be alarmed by the fact that there is not a single Japanese or Chinese film in this year competition, where Sylvia Chang's gentle Taiwan-Hong Kong cross-generation women's film 20:30:40 and Kim Ki-Duk's latest Korean shocker Samaritan Girl keep the Far East in with a shout.

The international critical community's discovery of Thai cinema continues apace with no less than four films in various sections. The one most likely to pull off the international distribution coup of the well-liked 2003 Venice title Last Life In The Universe is probably Nonzee Nimibutr's Baytong, a comedy about a Buddhist monk who is forced to leave his monastery when his sister is killed in a terrorist attack.

Geopolitics aside, it's more difficult than ever to pick out likely Bear contenders this year. Partly this has to do with the admirably high proportion of world premieres (19 out of 23), partly with the mix of festival veterans (Eric Rohmer, Ken Loach, Patrice Leconte, Manuel Guitierrez Aragon, Theo Angelopoulos) and new talent, such as first-time Belgian director Stephane Vuillet, whose 25 Degrees In Winter is said to be a real crowd pleaser.