By Marc Glassman
In A Better World
Susanne Bier, director and co-writer w/Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring: Mikael Persbrandt (Anton), Trine Dyrholm (Marianne), Markus Rygaard (Elias), William Johnk Nielsen (Christian), Ulrich Thomsen (Claus)
It’s a rare film these days that makes you think about philosophical issues. The vast majority are genre exercises done with skill but not any intellectual depth. Even the big Oscar winners this year, The King’s Speech and The Fighter, don’t engender deep thoughts beyond the homily that one has to confront personal demons in order to achieve success.
Susanne Bier, the feisty, talented Danish writer-director won an Oscar this year in the Foreign Language category for what was arguably the best film of the year, In A Better World. This emotionally charged, complex story takes the viewer from war torn Sudan to chilly Denmark in order to create a series of inter-locking tales of violence.
Bier’s compassionate but fearless narrative centers on two families in crisis. Elias is a lonely twelve-year old boy, bullied everyday for his toothy “rat-like” appearance until a new lad, Christian, arrives in their classroom. Sucked into sympathy for Elias and his on-going victimization and also hit by the bullies, Christian viciously attacks the instigator, hitting him repeatedly with a bicycle pump and then absolutely terrifying him with a knife.
The school authorities are aghast–but they had done nothing to protect Elias before Christian’s retaliation. Christian and Elias become fast friends, naturally drawing their families together.
Christian has arrived back in Denmark from London with his father Claus after his mother died of cancer. The two are grieving in their own ways and are emotionally isolated from each other. Christian is furious: incapable of accepting his mother’s death and desperately seeking ways to act out his emotions.
Elias’ mother Marianne and father Anton have separated; they’re doctors and are trying to raise Elias and his younger brother Morten equally. Anton is dividing his time between treating patients at a Sudanese refugee camp and trying to win back his family in Denmark.
Anton believes in non-violence. When an auto repairman slaps him because he incorrectly thinks that Anton was threatening his child, the doctor does nothing. Christian and Elias are appalled at Anton’s lack of manliness, not realizing how much courage is behind the doctor’s actions.
Back in Sudan, Anton had to give medical assistance to a warlord, whose behaviour has made him a despised figure in the refugee camp. Again, Anton was trying to work towards a greater good since aiding a patient, even an awful human being, is part of the Hippocratic Oath.
Inevitably, Anton’s principles run into conflict with a world replete with violence. The warlord–on the mend–acts so dreadfully that even Anton is forced to kick him out of the camp, where his former victims ruthlessly attack and presumably kill him. In Denmark, Christian and an initially reluctant Elias construct a bomb to destroy the auto repairman’s car–and terrify him.
Despite his apparently unrealistic stance about violence, when the boys’ plans go askew and a tragedy nearly occurs, it Is Anton who is able to maintain equanimity, offering a way for the two families to achieve peace and growth. Non-violence may not be the answer to a world filled with evil and unexamined anger–Bier seems to be suggesting—but it surely offers an opportunity for individuals to find a “separate peace”–and retain their moral codes.
The “better world” hasn’t happened yet but with a filmmaker like Bier operating at full power, it does feel possible that a time for change may happen soon.
In A Better World is an extraordinary film. I urge you to see it.