on June 28, 2011
I saw "In a Better World" --- this year's winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film --- in a theater with a dozen people.
This was in cosmopolitan New York.
The evening show on a weekday night.
Even more depressing when you consider that the director --- Susanne Bier --- is also the director of After the Wedding, an exceptional movie that was nominated for Best Foreign Film in 2007. (It lost to the German entry, "The Lives of Others.")
I don't rank film directors by the awards they get --- when I say that Ms. Bier is one of the greatest filmmakers on the planet, it's because that's what I really think. My reasons? Her movies are strong melodramas. Her actors are not beautiful in the way movie stars are beautiful --- no Botox, no surgery. The dialogue in her movies doesn't show off a screenwriter's cleverness. She doesn't telegraph the emotions she wants you to feel with music.
No wonder "In a Better World" has grossed just $230,000 in the United States.
If you stand outside a theater showing "In a Better World" and other movies and watch people leaving, you can easily identify who saw the Bier film --- they're the people who are silent. Slack-jawed. Maybe even weeping.
How is a Bier film different from a movie we all liked --- "The King's Speech," for example? Ah, that's the thing. There's no comparison. "The King's Speech" is entertainment: a formula movie, a buddy film. It's "Rocky" --- only here the underdog is the King of England. And the moral? You've heard it a zillion times: You can make it if you try.
The genius of "The King's Speech" is that it's methodical about the buttons it pushes --- the challenges are neatly presented, the solutions appear right on cue.
The genius of Susanne Bier movies is that she pushes buttons for which there are no neat answers. And offering solutions is not her intent. She presents characters who are just like us --- that is, they're suffering and trying to make the best of it --- and you fall in love with them, in all their glorious pain, and then things start happening. And you're stuck. You're no longer watching a movie. You're living it.
"In a Better World" is about two families in Denmark.
Anton and his wife Marianne are both doctors, but their marriage is failing, and Anton is away for months at a time, working in a Doctors Without Borders medical mission in Africa. Their son, Elias, is a sweet 10-year-old who is regularly bullied at school --- a fact he doesn't share with his parents.
Christian is also ten. He's the son of Claus, a rich Danish businessman who has moved his family to London. But Christian's mother has recently died of cancer, and Claus has moved back to Denmark.
Two boys. One victimized and confused. One grieving and enraged. Naturally they bond. Naturally, Christian comes to Elias's defense.
In Danish, the title of this movie is "Haevnen," which translates to "revenge" --- and that is what the movie is about. Life hits you with a baseball bat, and how do you respond? And if you can identify your tormentor and hit him back, then what?
Christian hits back. And plans, with Elias, to do it again. And their parents? Anton has a doctor's code in Africa; he treats everyone. In Denmark, he tries to live the same way. But when he sees a kid beating another in a playground, he intervenes --- and for his troubles, the bully's father pushes him around.
It gets worse. Anton goes, with his kids, to confront that bully. The guy's a thug. He slaps Anton around. And promises more. Anton doesn't retaliate. Instead --- in a scene I guarantee you will never see in a movie financed by Hollywood --- Anton explains to the kids that the bully "lost" the moment he threw the first punch.
Really? I often quote the line "Don't pick up the rope" --- but how many times can you walk away? At what point does unchallenged bullying become evil? Should we be so above the fray that a monster can march us into a concentration camp? Where do we draw a line?
The people --- I hesitate to call them "characters" --- in Bier's movie fumble with these issues. Because Bier is a ruthlessly efficient director, they don't talk much. They act. Things happen. Things go wrong.
Do you remember that scene in "Kramer vs. Kramer" when Dustin Hoffman's son has an accident in Central Park and Hoffman grabs him and runs with him to the emergency room? Your heart was, as they say, in your mouth; your eyes misted. There's a scene in this movie that has that feeling. No disrespect to Dustin Hoffman or his director, Robert Benton --- this scene is better.
Over and over. my wife and I groaned as we watched "In a Better World." Groaned because we were watching scenes like no others and had no defense against the novelty. Groaned because we identified so strongly with the people, because we shared their hurt and confusion.
No one heard us --- as I say, we were almost alone in the theater. As you will be if you go to see "In a Better World." Those emotional blows, you will find, are cleansing; as the characters work toward some kind of healing, so do you. And when they get to the end, so do you.
Yes, you leave the theater battered. But also relieved. And smarter. And grateful for the experience.
I'd drive a hundred miles, if I had to, to see "In a Better World." If you don't live in New York, that's what you might have to do. Don't even think about the price of gas. Go.
on April 21, 2011
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.
Since the days of Louis Malle's Au revoir les enfants in 1987, I had not watched such powerful film in which the leading voice would have been carried by two children.
The artistic greatness of the film resides in what concerns its multidimensional messsage. It deals with the enormous risk of leaving the children free with his own demons, on the other side the visible lack of communication between parents and sons, and the stubborness remarked over and over about the unerring ethic agaisnt the adversary so disturbing in the case of Elias' father, faced agaisnt the moral dilemma of saving the life of the nasty killer of the village or the infinite patience when deals with the mechanic.
Prized with the Golden Globe and The Academy as Best Foreign Film, the movie is beatifully filmed with towering performances, although we should make special mention about Christian, the driving force of the drama.
Denmark, once more returns for saying present (after its glorious golden decade with Babette's feast and Pelle the Conqueror and then with extraordinary films from the enigmatic and creative director Lars von Triers, such as Zentropa -one of my top ten films of the Nineties- Breaking the waves or Dogville) and Celebration.
There is no denying the message brought out in `In a Better World'. Susanne Bier (god, I love her) has a way of working with situations and actors to create such visceral chemistry. I've seen all of her works, and while `In a Better World' is far from her strongest (just watch `After the Wedding' and tell me it isn't one of the single greatest cinematic achievements of the past decade...I dare you) it still carries her trademark aura.
`In a Better World' explores a different theme for Bier. Here she tackles violence, its root and the steady escalation of untreated anger. It is within this theme, and the overall construction of its elements, that the film falters for me. While I find it more compelling than the lauded `A History of Violence', it doesn't quite capture the unsettling realities of violence that any one of Michael Haneke's masterpieces has done (especially `Cache'). Instead, `In a Better World' is a little too calculated for its own good. I actually loved the assessment given by the sites reviewer, Robert Horton. He states "this film is rendered with great care and each new strand of the plot is thought out and carefully placed...maybe, if anything, slightly too carefully placed--the story is so neatly plotted and balanced it comes close to being a closed system", and I concur with this sentiment. The film is so obvious in its construction that the eventualities bare less impact than they would if there was that element of surprise, and that element is a big one when considering violence as an act. Violence is often senseless and careless and unwarranted, and while this film touches on those areas (school bullies, ruthless warlords) it doesn't allow that energy to seep into the skin of the picture.
`In a Better World' deals with dueling families affected by various degrees and expressions of violence. Anton is separated from his wife Marianne after his indiscretions catch up with him. While he is off in Africa taking care of women ravaged by a disgusting warlord, Marianne is taking care of their son Elias who is suffering emotionally by the torment of a school bully. Claus, recently widowed after his wife lost her battle with cancer, is trying to repair his relationship with his young son Christian, who has witnessed Elias's treatment and has retaliated with a burst of violence that left the tormentor bruised, battered and scared. Christian begins to fray though, using this situation not as a stepping stone for change but instead, he spirals down into a morbid and vengeful spirit as he contemplates exacting revenge on anyone who treats him or those around him unfairly. Anton, who is absent in Africa most of the time, tries to set a good example in `being the bigger man' for his son and his son's friend, but Christian's attitude continues to derail as his pent up anger over his mother's death pushes him to the edge.
The performances are all outstanding, especially from young William Johnk Nielson, who infuses so much emotional complexity behind Christian's eyes. Trine Dyrholm is also very good here. I've only seen her in two films (WATCH `TROUBLED WATER' NOW!) and she's been exceptional in both. I loved Ulrich Thomsen in Bier's marvelous `Brothers', but here I'll admit that he has little to do. Mikael Persbrandt is extraordinary as Anton (he sounds like a Swedish Alan Rickman), developing such layered emotions as he struggles to be a father and a role model and a friend and when he begins to tamper with his own moral and ethical boundaries you can see the confliction in his soul.
In the end, `In a Better World' is a beautiful film. It has so much going for it (the score, the cinematography and the set designs are just a few of the extras that make this film completely eye-catching), I only wish that it wasn't so mechanically `exact' because it loses a bit of its heart in the process. It becomes `expected', which takes away from the wonderment of the experience.
Still, Bier is an exceptional filmmaker!
on April 12, 2011
ACADEMY AWARD WINNER BEST FOREIGN FILM 2011, GOLDEN GLOBE WINNER BEST FOREIGN FILM 2011.
In a Better World is a wonderful mature drama from Danish Director Susanne Bier. Many film directors have signature elements to their process and although I have only seen two other Bier films (After the Wedding and Things We Lost in the Fire). There are elements of herself, her voice, which she lends to the creative process, cinematography, musical composition, editing and etc. I felt something familiar, something personal that felt familiar, yet I could not place my finger on it. I felt connected to her work like I knew her work so very well, yet is was still very special and new to me. Her hidden, yet visible stamp.
The cinematography nourishes us with equally breathtaking sweeping vista's of African plains and Danish coastlines. The feel she created, we can almost touch and smell and taste the lovely Danish countrysides and African skies. The visual content is quite magnificent.
The story is so very simple and straightforward. Yet we are held tight to the screen by MASTER ACTORS. Actors who take us with them to the places they are going inside their hearts and souls.
Mikael Persbrandt is a soaring Swedish talent with no boundaries on his range. I own several Mikael Persbtandt works including Everlasting Moments, Day and Night, Bang Bang Orangutan, and Search. He reaches for the moon we see at night from Earth and brings us several of Saturn's moons. His performance, it is REAL and ORGANIC. He IS that man in Denmark and Africa, He IS that character.
The Dane, Trine Dyrholm gives us her soul as a mother and a wife. She pulls at our heartstrings and brings tears to our eyes. She is a master actor. I am now a huge fan. I will find her past works and view this skilled actor's history. She brought only truths to the screen. Wow. She is a FORCE!
Ulrich Thomsen is a distinguished Danish actor who has been booked by Hollywood in films such as The International. He is a powerful screen presence and he had to reign in his screen force to play this simple role. The three leads, they all carry this movie as our consciences, our logical mature internal voices. Ulrich Thomsen in particular speaks without words. He is at that level where we know where he is at through his thought process. He is a pure master actor.
The boys are the heart of this piece. Usually kids ruin these kinds of slow powerful dramas, yet these kids are perfect in their roles. Their decisions, their choices, their unheard voices, their thoughts, and their raw fire drives this film. Ultimately they make adult choices, but they do not have the capacity to fully understand their decisions until the choice has been made. When made, they do the right thing, a little late, but they do the right thing. Kids love their parents even when they hate them. The changes internally kids go through are difficult and that makes patience a key to not losing your kids hearts and love.
I love films with depth, perception, humanity, exploration of our emotional conditions without being dialogue heavy, or too slick or too mainstream. This film is true to its core.
After seeing this I felt like I am..
..In A Better World
on July 21, 2012
It's funny how Hollywood spends so much money making these big special effects films and yet most of them (Not all I'll admit) pale in comparison ACTING wise to European, Latin American (Argentina for example) films. Movies like "In a better world" have the upper hand when it comes to excellence in acting. I love this movie for many reasons, because it shows the delicate and complicated relationships between fathers and sons and most of all it shows emotions in a very realistic sense without being sappy or overly sentimental,something that Hollywood is very good at doing. A very HIGHLY recommended foreign film.
on January 23, 2014
In a world filled with violence--individual, gang, tribal, state; in a world of great disparity between what adults say and what adults do; in a world where mass shootings have become a daily reality but political leaders say the answer is more guns; in a world that tells us the state achieves security with a strong military and military action, while the best thing for individuals confronting violence is to turn the other cheek; and in a world where children see bullying every day as well as teachers who do nothing about it, it's no wonder that kids grow up wildly confused about violence and its place in our lives. Young schoolmates Christian and Elias are dealing with very big issues—divorce, death of a parent, and bullying at school and elsewhere. As the traumas big and small begin to add up, so does the anger, and the friends contemplate a violent response. In A Better World at first seems focused on the subject of violence and some of its undeniable truths, perhaps its inscrutability being the most undeniable of all. But the film ultimately and happily is not an analysis of the convoluted subject of the whys and whens of violence. It's much more interested in giving us a glimpse into the prism through which children witness violence and exploring the role we all play in shaping that prism. This is a visually rich film with a forceful screenplay that unfolds at a brisk pace. But its most enduring scene, one that the viewer finds very difficult to forget, is one of visual simplicity and involving the deeply profound lessons and legacy a parent can pass on to a child. It's a scene of poignant grace defined by a difficulty deliberately sought out, a challenge squarely faced, an indignity kindly overlooked, all for the selfless purpose of teaching an invaluable lesson to the most pliable among us … in order to make a better world. The relevance and humanity of this film are its exploration of how parents and other adults raise children in a world full of violence and what those adults teach—by word and by deed—about how to confront adversity and the urge to respond with violence. It's not always an easy film to watch despite the gorgeous cinematography. But the “emotional blows,” as one amazon reviewer writes, “are cleansing; as the characters work toward some kind of healing, so do you.” One leaves the theater “grateful for the experience.” At its most basic, this is a film about parents raising kids, and a beautiful reminder that you don't have to be a perfect parent. In an increasingly inexplicable world, for children and adults, you just have to have the courage and the wisdom—in word and deed—to be good enough.
on December 21, 2014
I rented this film on Redbox and loved it so much that I watched it again with my parents over the holidays. Well, this is certainly worth the purchase and I recalled seeing a price drop. This was what triggered my purchase for this DVD and Blu-ray combo which rarely is around $10. Well, this certainly deserves viewing from all parents and children alike. In a world filled with bullies, it is hard for some kids to bounce back with their own parental issues at home. I think this film won the Academy Award because this is a universal film that will touch everyone. I love the cinematography in this film as well as the fine cast of actors. Mostly, I don't recognize since these actors are Norwegian but they probably are well-seasoned ones. I won't spoil the ending but when you hear the boys recount their bitter upbringings as well as struggle to have a normal life, it will make you think twice. Don't miss this film...
on June 25, 2013
I saw this film at the Sundance Film Festival and it was profoundly moving. It is a complex, heart wrenching examination into forgiveness in several different situations. The story lines weave together masterfully and it left me feeling uplifted, contemplative, and grateful. Really amazing.
on September 26, 2011
I was very reluctant to view this subtitled film due to a misconception that it was an overly preachy, overidealized paean to pacificism. Truth be told, it is much more complex, and provides a sensitive examination of human nature and the competing urges toward bravery, cowardice, evil and humankindness. To the viewer, it pulsates with excitement and danger. By design, a number of scenes are emotionally overwhelming and excruciating to watch--but without artifice, special effects or superficiality. Highly recommended without any reservation.