IN A BETTER WORLD (2011) (***1/2)
The original Danish title is directly translated as "The Revenge." I feel the American title is more fitting in that it encapsulates the humanistic ideals the film portrays. However, the original title reflects the real world that we live in. Director Susanne Bier puts her main character's ideals up against the harsh realities that he is forced to deal with.
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt, EVERLASTING MOMENTS) is a Swedish doctor who works in a war torn African country. He is confronted with the horrors of Big Man (Odiege Matthew), a warlord who on bets cuts open pregnant women just to see what the sex of their babies are. Back in Denmark where he lives, his son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is being constantly picked on by a bully and his followers. Then Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) moves to his area. His mother has recently died and he is an angry boy who doesn't think the world is fair. He savagely beats the bully. When his well-meaning, but lost, father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen, BROTHERS) asks him why he'd do such a thing, he says, "No one will ever dare touch me now."
Elias and Christian become friends. When Anton comes home on a break, he takes the boys on a boating trip. An altercation on the playground leads Anton to be hit by Lars (Kim Bodnia, PUSHER), an aggressive jerk. Christian doesn't like Anton's non-confrontational approach, believing that Lars has gotten the upper hand and it's not fair because he wrong. From Christian's influence, Elias begins to think that his dad is a coward, so Anton takes the boys back to confront Lars. This learning moment leads to the opposite effect Anton intended.
Bier, working again with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, makes a film that conjures up a lot of questions. On the surface Anton's philosophy of non-violence seems compassionate, idealistic and a strong display of self-control. But Christian's idea of hit hard right from the start and you'll never get hit again seems to be a more successful solution. But there will be people that get hit hard who will hit back and in the end we're all hitters. Where do we draw the line? When do good intentions get hit in the face with the way the world is? Violence is a vicious cycle. Nothing is black or white.
Some have complained that the scenes in Africa are too overtly parabolic. I agree they are used in that way, but they also give more depth to Anton. He isn't just a walking philosophy, but a good, but flawed, man trying to do his best. This also comes out in his relationship with his estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm, THE CELEBRATION). It's ironic that such a humanistic man would not recognize the emotional damage an affair would cause on his marriage. Once again, ideals crack under the pressures of reality.
For me the most interesting relationship is that of Elias and Christian. The latter is especially intriguing because he's the kind of character that so easily could been made into a cliché. But he's not a typical bully and yet he has some of those tendencies, despite the fact that he hates bullies. Elias is a kind, honest and impressionable kid who just wants a friend. It's easy for Christian to lead him into trouble. It seems Christian has taken on some of the bitterness his mother felt when she was dying. The sick woman told Claus that the boy would come to hate him. Christian just hates everything.
The film won the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It beat out strong contenders like BIUTIFUL, DOGTOOTH and INCENDIES. In many ways it has an easier and tidier message than those films, which appeals to the Academy. But I also think it was it's sense of hope. If more people just tried to act like Anton, the world would be a better place. However, for Anton, in the hellish parts of Africa, he learns when his ideals just don't make sense. For Elias and Christian, it takes their own mistakes to learn from what he tried to teach them. If Anton never tried at all, they wouldn't know any other way was possible.