It is a case of better late than never for the Danish drama In a Better World. It won an Academy Award for best Foreign Language Film a little over three months ago, but is finally making it to a Tulsa theater.
While it isn't my favorite among the movies that were nominated (that would be Dogtooth, a hard to forget mind-bender from Greece that I keep recommending at every opportunity), it's easy to see why In a Better World garnered enough votes to win. It is a solid, well-made film about big ideas, and while ultimately it not as emotionally powerful as it wants to be, it still packs a punch.
In a Better World opens in a desolate, windswept refugee camp at an unknown location in Africa. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a doctor behind gates and wires that keep people safe from the violence that threatens them outside the shield of camp. Anton commutes to Africa from his home in Denmark, but in both places he is embroiled with different kinds of turmoil. In Africa it is poverty; in Denmark it is his fragmenting marriage and the trouble his son Elias is facing with a gang of bullies at his school.
Elias is a sweet-faced boy who is dubbed "rat face" by fellow students. Each day he suffers a gauntlet of abuse that he takes with stoic quietness, no matter how harsh the treatment. Everything changes for Elias when Christian moves to town. Christian was living in London, but after his mom died of cancer, he moves back to his father's hometown. Christian is an angry, intense kid and the bullies pick on him his first day at the school. He is the wrong kid to bully and they learn quickly not to screw with him after he goes "prison style" (meaning, he attacks first) on the largest kid with a bicycle air pump and knife to the throat.
Elias might not be bothered by the bullies anymore, but he's got an entirely new set of problems in his life by partnering up with the rage-filled Christian. Elias is so desperate for a friend, he will let Christian lead him down dangerous roads that might cause him or others harm. While showing the blossoming friendship between the two young boys, In a Better World also digs into the upheaval of Anton's world, both at home and in the refugee camp. Anton has to face the same sort of questions of accountability that his son Elias is grappling with.
An interesting facet of In a Better World is how it juggles the coming of age elements of the story with as much somberness as it does the adult story lines of Anton's evaporating marriage and difficult job in Africa. Elias and Christian are technically children, yet they are just as contemplative and serious as their parents at what is happening in their lives. The Danish are continuously anointed the happiest people in the world in study after study, but based on the characters we see In a Better World, these people must not have been quizzed.
In a Better World is a thought-provoking movie that tackles some thorny subject matter, such as the nature of violence, the necessity of revenge and the slipperiness of right versus wrong.
Each person we meet in the film has to contemplate their own conscience as they come face-to-face with a murky moral ground. At times, director Susanne Bier's (After the Wedding, Things We Lost in the Fire) hand is a little too heavy. I could have done without slow-motion shots of African kids playing, for example. I've got no qualms about seeing them doing this, but does it have to be in slow motion? Bier straddles a fine line of loading her film with such an endless sense of dread that it comes close to suffocating the story and makes it difficult for the viewer to find an emotional link with her characters on screen.
I loved how In a Better World was photographed by Bier's longtime cinematographer Morten Soborg. The opening sequence of the film in Africa was a sign to pay attention to the way In a Better World looks. Visually, this is one beautifully shot movie. The African scenes are full of vibrant, saturated colors with wide vistas and thick clouds hanging low above the dusty terrain. The scenes in Denmark are more muted in tone, but still striking. Soborg is a skilled guy, as he was the cinematographer, for the hauntingly gorgeous Valhalla Rising, a violent, phantasmagoric visual feast that allowed him to unleash an array of photographic tricks. There might not be a single person working in film who can make clouds look as stunning as what Soborg does with them.
In a Better World has a lot of talented Danes involved. It was written by screenwriter/director Anders Thomas Jensen (The Green Butchers) and I've already mentioned Bier, Soborg and Persbrandt. A melancholic meditation on violence and revenge, In a Better World explores the joyless portions of a person's life, whether they are a kid or adult. At times, the film veers close to drowning in its own unrelenting heaviness, but it makes it through in the end. It is after all an Oscar winner, regardless of how long it took to come to Tulsa.
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