Monday, December 19, 2011

In a Better World

Every once in a while in the very first sequence of a movie you get a strong sense that this is going to be an extraordinary film. It happened for me with Run, Lola, Run. It happened with There Will Be Blood. And yesterday, from the first, I knew that In a Better World would be a thought-provoking and painfully powerful film to watch, the kind of pain that comes from art. The opening film score and landscape shots alone conveyed that mix of beauty and pain which elevates it to something almost transcendent.

It's a Danish film directed by Susanne Bier, whom you may know from Things We Lost In the Fire and After the Wedding, films I've heard of but have not yet seen. The story takes place in Darfur, centering primarily on two families. It's a drama that looks at the problem of vengeance from an assortment of angles.

We meet Anton, the first main character, at a small outpost hospital where he is the doctor. A woman is rushed in with her stomach cut open and they begin the emergency surgery that they hope will save her. We hear that the "big man" did this, and the horror of it is this. The "big man" likes to take pregnant women and bet whether she is carrying a boy or a girl child. Then they cut her open to see if he won the bet.

Once you hear this story, you're almost certain that we'll be meeting the "big man" later in the film, and indeed we do.

Anton has a son Elias who is victimized by bullies in the school he attends. This son and a new friend named Christian will be a central piece in the story. Christian becomes the new kid in this tough school because his mother has died and father brought him to a new place. Like the bigger world where Anton's dad works, this bullying situation is a microcosm, with its own "big man"...

What is the response to these bullies? What is the response to violence? When Christian sees the school bully corner his friend Elias in a basement bathroom, he chooses violence to subdue the kid, and threatens him with a knife.

In another confrontation Anton attempts to teach the boys that there is an alternative to revenge. By turning the other cheek we demonstrate our strength and the other person's foolishness. This lesson doesn't sink home with the boys, however, and they make other choices in response to things going on.

This inadequate summary is meant to simply hint at the varieties of ways violence is examined in this film. The acting is top-notch, the pace is good, the story remarkable.

This is not the kind of film you will balance a checkbook to. Besides, much of it requires reading subtitles. It is the kind of film that will move you if you engage it. We live in a broken world. How do we respond to the violence that is tearing us apart?

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