Susanne Bier’s Danish film In a Better World won this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film; it exhibits the same general limitations as most recent winners of that historically lamentable award, but it’s still more provocative and rewarding than most of them. The film focuses primarily on two boys: Christian returns from London to his native Denmark after his mother dies of cancer, and makes friends with Elias, the constant target of local bullies. Christian rapidly becomes Elias’ protector, and the two become friends, but Christian’s steely insistence on settling scores (the original title translates as Revenge) puts the two in moral if not physical jeopardy. Elias’ parents are both doctors, and his father frequently works in Africa, encountering his own ethical challenge when a barbarous local criminal insists on treatment.
In a Better World
Although it’s not the most elevated reference point, the basic experience of watching the film often isn’t so far from one of those devil-child movies like The Omen or Orphan; Christian is clearly headed somewhere horrible, and you cringe at the prospect of it. But he’s not a devil-child – he’s a grieving boy, unable to process his loss and everything that surrounded it. Christian’s father is a secondary character in Bier’s scheme of things, but very moving in his incomprehension of how things came to this; the movie couldn’t be remotely as gripping and satisfying, if it didn’t evoke underlying emotions and needs so carefully and fully.
Bier’s underlying plan, I think, is to set up three convenient hate objects – a schoolyard bully, a hotheaded local mechanic, and the African murderer – and to lure us into longing for their come-uppance while also forcing us to confront the dangers of such a visceral response. In that sense it’s vaguely aligned with Michael Haneke works like Funny Games, which push us to critique how violence operates on the viewer. But Bier doesn’t want merely to muse about the apparatus of cinema – she’s aiming for the wrenching social questions. The logic of an eye for an eye ends up merely in blinding the world, but there’s surely a concept of justifiable force, without which we merely surrender to the cruel whims of the monsters among us (she might have been thinking of Obama’s speech when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, to me a series of declarations that might have made sense if we were staring down Hitler, but merely seemed grotesque and self-serving when applied to America’s wretched current endeavours). The African butcher is an extreme example of that calculus, roughly representing the fraught question of Western responsibility toward atrocities in Rwanda, or escalating risks in Libya, and so on. Bier more or less abandons that narrative though just when you might have thought it was getting interesting, which might strike you as downright strange; perhaps her thought is that we can’t hope to adequately assess such global challenges unless we put things right at home.
The film has little in the way of provocative thinking on the domestic front though, and if it did have any, it wouldn’t likely survive a series of closing scenes that sweep numerous narrative and moral strands under the table to emphasize forgiveness and reconciliation. Still, I don’t suppose we should need the input of another movie to inform our meditations on the topic. Bier likes to intertwine the personal and political – her After the Wedding contrasted aid work in India with an even more convoluted domestic melodrama. She always seemed temperamentally suited to the “prestige” end of Hollywood moviemaking, and tried her luck there a few years ago with Things we Lost in the Fire. That film seemed conceived largely in soapy terms, but Bier’s close-up conviction made it intriguing and affecting, and she certainly made the most of Benicio del Toro; actually I’m not sure if any of his more famous performances have tapped his fascinating depths as skillfully.
Also, her earlier film Brothers was remade in America by another director, and the contrast between the two tells you a lot about Bier’s greater intuition and refinement. Overall, In a Better World is a solid work for sure, but – particularly if compared to the Greek film Dogtooth, which was also (if improbably) nominated this year – it’s hardly a worthy standard-bearer for the diverse capacity of world cinema.
When We Leave
Two other pictures which recently played at the Bell Lightbox are already out on DVD, as well as playing periodically on SuperChannel. When We Leave, directed by Feo Aladag, is about a young Turkish mother who leaves her abusive husband and returns with her son to her own family, living in Germany; while she attempts to establish a relatively modern, self-determined life, they see her as a source of shame, and plot to snatch her child away. The film makes your blood boil even if it relies on familiar mechanisms, in particular the contrast between the poor woman with her modest desire for normality and the recurring brutishness, or at least small-mindedness, of most of the men around her. But ultimately, unfortunately, the predictable narrative devices and largely conventional tone make it feel contrived and unrepresentative (whether or not it actually is those things); viewers predisposed against Muslim culture - or indeed, against the whole broad notion of preserving one’s own culture in an adopted land - will find plenty to latch onto here. I’m not saying that necessarily makes the film illegitimate, but it certainly limits it.
Daniele Luchetti’s My Brother is an Only Child was an interesting if not-very-probing drama from a few years ago, blending together a standard brotherly love/hate thing with an easy-to-take distillation of Italy’s evolving politics. Luchetti’s new film La nostra vita is less interesting, and weirdly unprobing. A construction contractor loses his wife in childbirth, leaving him with a new baby and two other boys; his big project is going badly, and he only got the project by exploiting a grim secret which can’t stay buried (literally, actually) forever. That should be enough of a plot for any film, but Luchetti seems to steer away from any narrative heavy lifting; the film erects a nice façade, then runs for cover as if knowing it would never get past the building inspectors. When I saw the earlier film, I made a note that lead actor Elio Germano seemed to be channeling De Niro; well, if that’s true for his work this time round, I guess I would have to mean one of those bland, emotionally remote (in a way that fails to provide a perspective on emotional remoteness) latter-day De Niro roles. And yet, for this Germano won the Cannes best actor prize - shared with Javier Bardem for Biutiful. Well, as we’ve established, you can’t put your faith in awards.