Dir.Suzanne Bier. Denmark. 2010.

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Can revenge ever be justified or does violence simply lead to an ever-widening cycle of more violence?  Should we use reason to confront an opponent or does turning the other cheek only make the problem worse? There are no easy answers in Suzanne Bier's In a Better World, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the 2011 Oscars. It is a thought-provoking film about several subjects: bullying and how best to respond, parents who are too involved with their own problems to reach out to their children, and how the seeds of anger need to be addressed before they are acted out.  

Written by Anders Thomas Jensen, In a Better World, whose Danish title is translated as “Revenge”, begins on a dusty landscape in an unnamed African country as young children run after the car of Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a volunteer doctor at a refugee camp. Violence rears its ugly head almost immediately as we see a young pregnant woman wheeled into the camp, the victim of mutilation by a tribal warlord. Later, Anton has to face a moral dilemma when he must confront the opposition of his nurses and assistants and decide whether or not to treat the badly wounded tribal leader responsible for the death and mutilation of so many women. 

The scene then shifts back home in Denmark to a parallel incident (though obviously not on the same scale) where the doctor's pre-teen son, Elias (Markus Rygaard) is bullied by bigger students who call him “rat face” because he wears braces. The bullying is witnessed by a new boy, Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), who has just moved from London and who is still feeling the anger over his mother's recent death from cancer and his father's perceived indifference. Christian unleashes his bottled-up anger at the bully Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm), beating him with a bicycle pump and threatening him with a knife. Elias covers up for Christian when questioned by the police and denies that Christian had a knife. 

Elias and Christian begin to feel a closeness resulting from their mutual need. Elias' father is in Africa a good part of the time and not around when he needs him. To compound the problem, Anton and his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) are nearing a divorce because of the father's apparent philandering. Christian, perhaps unable to realize that he is angry at his mother for dying, an issue the film does not explore, takes out his resentment on his passive father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) who he feels lied to him when he told him that his mother would not die. He also believes his father flirted with Elias' mother and, for that reason, wanted his mother to die. 

In another incident, Lars (Kim Bodnia), a local garage mechanic, pushes Anton around after he breaks up a fight involving Lars' son. Though Anton later confronts Lars, he does so verbally not physically, telling the boys that Lars is a jerk and if he hit him back, he would also be a jerk. Unfortunately, the boys do not get the message of showing restraint, but think of Anton as a weakling. Together, they cook up a poorly thought-out plan to blow up Lars' van with a home-made pipe bomb, an action that inevitably compounds the problem. 

Though there can be differences of opinion about many of the issues raised and the film does give mixed messages, Bier makes clear the vital need for honest and open communication between parents and children. While there are candid discussions between Elias' parents about their relationship, what is lacking is the recognition that there is a vast difference between the world as perceived by children and the one seen by adults, a difference that can only be bridged by taking responsibility to provide a nurturing environment for children to become aware of and express their feelings without fear of punishment.

While In a Better World is not a daring or original film, it raises issues that most Hollywood films would stay far away from. Piercing through the veil of a media culture that sells violence as the solution to problems, the film's message resonates strongly - that violence does not resolve an issue, even if on the surface it may seem otherwise. Though some aspects of the film are not completely convincing, including the ending which seems tied together too neatly, Bier's characterizations are crafted with such intelligence and sensitivity that the film overall has a strong impact, drawing performances that are so natural and emotionally resonant that any weakness in the script is easily overcome. 


Howard Schumann

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