Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review: "In a Better World"

I've noticed a curious trend with the winners for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

It seems like in recent years, somewhere between two and four of the nominees will have gotten a U.S. release by the time of the Oscars, and a clear front-runner will emerge. Then, a nominee seemingly out of left field that few people have seen will win the statue.

I have harrumphed when wonderful films like "Pan's Labyrinth," "Waltz with Bashir" or "Biutiful" get stiffed by an interloper. Then, months later, the Oscar-winning film finally comes to these shores, and I find myself nodding in agreement with the Academy.

"The Lives of Others," "The Secret in Their Eyes" and "Departures" were all examples of latecomers deserving to win the best foreign film prize. Add the 2010 Academy Award winner, "In a Better World," to the list.

This stunning film from Danish director Susanne Bier ("After the Wedding") is a searing emotional journey between the polar edges of the human heart, both violent and pacifistic. It does not settle for simple answers, recognizing that sometimes fighting back is the most satisfying response to aggression, but understanding that violence almost always begets more of the same.

No one in "A Better World" is entirely a villain, and even the most saint-like character has flaws and doubts.

The story revolves around two 12-year-old boys, Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), in a pair of performances amazing from performers so young, stark and unadorned. Bier, her young actors and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen perfectly grasp what it is like to be a boy on the verge of manhood, when possibilities for both good and evil are endless, and relationships with friends gain heft as those with parents fray.

Theirs is a world where fathers are loving but largely absent, where bullies roam the school unhindered and abuse is simply to be endured ... until.

Christian is the new boy at school, the son of a recent widower. It is unspoken but firmly understood that he blames his father (Ulrich Thomsen) for, in his eyes, abandoning his mother and then abandoning Christian himself with his frequent business trips. Christian has grown hardened, both toward his remaining parent and the world at large.

On his first day at school he spies Elias being picked on by the schoolyard thug, Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm). Elias is sweet-faced and harmless, with big liquid blue eyes and an expression of innocence. Christian stands up for Elias, and as a result becomes a target himself. Until, that is, he escalates the situation in a shocking turn.

Don't you know that violence never solves anything, his father asks him?

"It does if you hit hard enough the first time," Christian responds with icy calculation.

The other major figure is Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), Elias' father and a doctor who works in the most wretched corner of Africa, stricken with poverty and warlords. Anton is a healer, and it pains him that the only wound he cannot mend is the one he left on the heart of his wife (Trine Dyrholm).

While he is at home, Anton breaks up a fight between Elias' little brother and another boy, and the other boy's father (Kim Bodnia) reacts with rage, slapping Anton in full sight of the Elias and Christian.

The boys' budding machismo cannot comprehend why Anton does not fight back. He explains it to them, and then takes an extraordinary step to prove his principles, but we sense that he's really convincing himself. The boys, for their part, are not persuaded and take matters in a dire direction.

"In a Better World" is an absolutely gripping cinematic experience that had me by turns boiling with rage and tearing up at moments of absolute tenderness. This wonderful film has mastered both extremes.

3.5 stars out of four

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