Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Danish Oscar-Winner "In A Better World"

This year's Oscar-winning Foreign language film,  Denmark's "In A Better World", brings us into the world to two boys. Their friendship, tests of loyalty, and horrific outbursts of violence against those who wronged them, slyly suggest the fear of loneliness and desire for belonging that reside in the seeds of terrorism.

In a parallel story, the father of one of the boys is a sometime doctor in an African community being terrorized by a tyrant. The dilemmas build on top of one another as the doctor's genteel methods of resolving conflict at home are harshly put to the test in a brutal life-or-death struggle.

Can cultures ignore the brutality inflicted on civilians across the globe?  Must we intervene?  Must we hang up our ideals when dealing with primal violence? Director Susanne Bier builds a sly complex of ethical questions that are effectively dramatized.

Anton, the doctor, (Mikael Persbrandt) is father to the shy boy who is bullied at his school. To this boy's rescue comes Christian, a new student, whose mother has just died of cancer.  Christian's father is consumed with grief, but it becomes apparent that he can only relate to his son as a buddy, and misses the danger signals of Christian's growing depression, anger, and obsession for revenge.

One of the things I liked best about "In A Better World" were the rich characterizations.  I also enjoyed the subtle music score, and the transitional cutaways to closeups of natural beauty that exist unhindered by human foibles.

 "In A Better World" could not be more timely.  It treats a number of contemporary issues, like school bullying, peer pressure, global injustice and terror, intervention in world conflict, parental guidance and communication in the face of parental loneliness and grief, the attractions and dangers of hero-worship, the darkness that leads to suicidal behavior, and the courage to stand by one's cultivated convictions.

Moreover, it is an entertaining and often unnerving film.

As is characteristic of the European films I've seen  here lately, the film plays like more polished and professional American independent film.  The difference is that "In A Better World" really moves, and turns up the intensity on audience's allegiances, and emotions. 

Without the pushy musical cues and generic fast cuts commonly used in American dramas to telegraph how the audience should react, there were moments when I was as tense and angry as I have been recently at a movie. I felt an animated, almost physical release, during the outbursts of violence.

This film is the proverbial hammer inside the velvet glove. The surface is soft, even lush. The photography is gorgeous, as is fitting for the awesome Danish countryside, and  haunting color in the African landscape, in some of the best camerawork since "The Killing Fields".  But the film packs a wallop, and is sometimes painful, but softens toward the end for a welcome conventional conclusion.

There were moments when I wasn't sure I liked the film, or at least the effect it had on me.  Effective propaganda rouses one's deepest angers and fears. And I don't like seeing children in peril. Yet the story is scripted in such a skillful way.  The actors, both boys (William Johnk Nielsen is brilliant as the brooding Christian and Gabriel Muli as the brave Laege) and their adult supporting players, handle their roles in a mature and matter-of-fact way.

If Oscar has any value, it is to bring to audience's attention movies like this that would be undeservedly ignored otherwise.  "In A Better World" was worthy of recognition, and has an appeal universal enough to do very well across boundaries and cultures.  You may not agree with its political posture, but you cannot deny its irresistible characters in very human, very real personal dilemmas.

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