Not everybody will agree with Oscar
voters in picking Susanne Bier’s boy-centered moral parable over Alejandro
Gonzalez Inarritu’s spiritual voyage to Barcelona’s lower depths, Biutiful, but
give this Bergman lite exploration of the roots of human violence a fair
hearing. The ads for In a Better World suggest that Bier evenly divides
her time between Scandinavian adolescents battling school bullies and a Swedish
doctor’s horrific duties in an African war zone that looks suspiciously like Sudan.
Actually the movie is mostly about two boys whose unlikely and very rocky
friendship seems at times to be heading for Columbine territory and then goes
in rather different direction.
Elias (Markus Rygaard), when we
first spy him, is seemingly the little wimpy kid with crooked teeth who gets
the stuffing kicked out of him. The personal punching bag for the school’s
blond bully boy, Elias gets an odd reprieve when a depressed, subliminally angry
new kid shows up. Christian (William Johnk Nielson) is distraught over the
recent cancer death of his beloved mom and truly pissed that his dad, Claus
(Ulrich Thomsen) seemed indifferent to his wife’s terminal struggle.
Innocently befriending Elias,
Christian gets a punch in the face for his trouble. The boy takes unusual
offense to the beat down and later exacts a brutal revenge, beating the bully
almost to unconsciousness with a bicycle tire pump.
It’s here where American audiences,
accustomed to “zero tolerance” rhetoric from our school authorities, may miss
the not so subtle differences between American and Scandinavian ideas of crime
and punishment. The school officials, despite the shocking nature of
Christian’s assault on the bullying boy, seek mediated reconciliation rather
than summary expulsion. Later this philosophy will prevail despite a horrendous
escalation of the young man’s violence.
The aspect of the movie that seems
to have inspired some critical reservations is Bier’s device of paralleling the
boys’ struggle to contain their rage with Elias’ dad’s meltdown in the desert.
Anton (the ruggedly handsome Mikael Persbrandt) is bitterly torn when asked to
treat a local warlord whose crimes include slicing open the pregnant bellies of
women. After at first turning a Gandhi like other cheek, Anton finally loses
his cool, resulting in a Lord of the Flies moment in the refugee camp.
The attempt to draw moral lessons
from the parallel stories will irk some liberal sensibilities, but many of us
fail to realize that Scandinavian society, however familiar, is not Obama’s America.
For more than a millennium Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland have waged
ferocious internal tribal wars, the scars of which have brilliantly illuminated
their film culture. In the breathtaking conclusion to In a Better World, a
disillusioned Swedish father addresses a suicidal Danish boy – a boy
responsible for a grievous injury to Anton’s precious Elias. Bier stepping up
to an Ingmar Bergman like moment gives Anton a harrowing speech in which he
informs the distraught Christian about the “veil of death” that humans only
rarely and usually tragically get to glimpse. It is a tribute to a great
ensemble and a fearless filmmaker that these words contribute to an upbeat if
not truly “happy” ending.
For those who can’t buy this
retribution free philosophy, wait for the Michael Haneke remake.