How do we react to the presence of evil and injustice when, as an adult or a child, it intrudes on our world? It's easy enough to say "you fight it," but the reality is never that simple. When do we act, how far do we go, what price are we willing to pay? When, if ever, is retaliation legitimate? How do we deal, finally, with the pain and suffering of the world?
The Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier has a potent gift for turning abstract, moral questions like these into edge-of-your-seat compelling dramas that examine, with devastating effect, the complex web of feelings that make us who we are. With "In A Better World," which deservedly won this year's best foreign language Oscar, she has outdone even herself.
As in earlier successes like "Brothers" and "After the Wedding" (impressively written, as is "Better World," by Anders Thomas Jensen), Bier displays an intuitive grasp of where the strongest dramatic moments are in a given situation and a fearlessness about putting them on-screen.
Bier also knows how to gracefully enhance emotional connection without pushing too hard, how to ramp things up without losing control. The result is the kind of realistic, involving adult scenarios that Hollywood mostly only dreams about these days. No wonder this story of parents and children in explosive crisis won that Oscar.
As in those previous films, "In A Better World" uses the international community as part of its framework. The two families it presents lead separate lives that take individuals far from home, but a small Danish community ends up being the focus of events.
"Better World" in fact opens in a bleak, inhospitable refugee camp in Africa, where Anton (Mikael Persbrandt of Jan Troell's "Everlasting Moments") is exhausted physically and emotionally by his work as a doctor.
As if the usual depredations of disease weren't hard enough to deal with, Anton has to try to save the lives of pregnant young women who are cut open by a sadistic local warlord given to making bets on the sex of unborn children.
Anton commutes between Africa and his home in Denmark, where his marriage to Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), also a doctor, is falling apart. The separation is especially hard on 10-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard), a sweet-faced boy whose passivity inevitably attracts the bullies in his school.
After Africa, "Better World" takes us briefly to London, where Claus (Ulrich Thomsen, like Dyrholm a veteran of "The Celebration") has just lost his wife to cancer.
Though Claus is understandably distraught, the film focuses on his young son Christian (William Johnk Nielsen). A stern boy who manages to stay composed though he is clearly upset, Christian seems almost frighteningly self-possessed.
With his wife dead, Claus moves his son back to Denmark to live with the boy's grandmother — to the same town, in fact, where the doctor has a home. Christian ends up becoming a classmate of Elias' and the boys become friends after Christian, offended at the way Elias is treated, acts in a way that ensures that the bullying comes to an end.
The Swedish title for "In a Better World" is "Haevnen," or "Vengeance," and it refers in part to Christian's state of mind. He's a boy with a lot of fury in him who sees himself as a righteous soldier compelled to exact justice, even revenge, for the wrongs of the world. It's a notion that terrifyingly complicates what is to come as the film's plot kicks into a higher gear.
One of the places where "In a Better World" is especially successful is comparing and contrasting the moral worlds of children and adults, showing how difficult but essential it is for each group to learn from the other.
It's as if the differing age groups speak different languages. The nuances of behavior that mean so much to adults don't resonate with children, while the burning intensity the children feel doesn't register at all with their parents. It's a dissonance that can have disastrous consequences, and "In a Better World" plays that powerfully disturbing outcome for all it's worth.