Some directors leave you cold when you see a particular movie they made. The first film of Ms Bier that I had seen—an earlier work called After the Wedding--left me rather unimpressed. The film had dealt with orphans in India and a father-daughter relationship in Europe that was at best interesting but not convincing enough to make me sit up and take note of either the lady behind the camera or of the scriptwriter. It remains for me a convoluted, predictable and unconvincing movie.
Now, why do I describe In a Better World to be a “surprisingly, endearing film?” I do not consider Susanne Bier’s preceding work After the Wedding to be either significant or to be a work of a promising director. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise for me that in the very next film In a Better World, Ms. Bier has so much more to offer for the viewer in every department of filmmaking that you begin to wonder if it is indeed the very same team of Bier and scriptwriter Anders Thomas Jensen behind the film you are watching. I am not surprised the film In a Better World won the Golden Globe for the best Foreign Film and the best director Silver Peacock at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa. This film deserved those honours, even if the film is simplistic enough to fall in line with the Dogme 95 values.
It is amusing to note that the Bier-Jensen team actually has reworked on the very same theme offered in After the Wedding only to remodel it afresh in In a Better World. Both films offer thought provoking comparisons of parallel relationships on two continents (this time Europe vs Africa, replacing Europe vs Asia/India in the earlier film). Instead of dealing with the father-daughter interactions of the earlier film, the Bier-Jensen team devolves the interactions to two sets of fragile father-son relationships. The other less-important parent in both films hover in the background and are never fleshed out by Jensen. You would expect the cocktail not to work when it is shaken as it was in the earlier film, but it somehow works wonders when the cocktail is stirred, rather than shaken, by the duo in the second film. While the main parent-child relationship is discussed threadbare in the European context in both the films, the viewer is also provided a connected inter-continental relationship of love and philanthropic social work involving one of the European parents in the first equation.
I have been trying to figure out for over a month why I liked Bier’s In a Better World so much when I was left nonplussed by After the Wedding. One possible reason is that I could easily identify myself with the incredibly real characters of the two 10-year old or so schoolboys and the peer pressure to agree to do certain morally wrong actions because you value more the friendships that you develop in school than ethics that you have adopted during your upbringing. Another possible reason I liked the film was the Gandhian parent who taught his children to develop moral strength rather than give in to bullies. A third reason was the underscoring of the effect of the absence of a mother on a growing child. A fourth possible reason I loved the film was the suggestion that seeds of terrorism can be easily be sown in the minds of youngsters when parents are separating or divorcing. A fifth likely reason was the awesome screen presence of the actor Mikael Presbrandt as the Gandhian father and a surgeon, who spends time in Africa providing medical care for victims of civil strife in an unspecified country, putting his Hippocratic oath above all other values and his conscience—at least for some time.
In a Better World lifts up a simple tale of two schoolboys, essentially having good moral values, who are both missing their respective mothers, deteriorate into modern terrorists or young vigilantes. The power of the film does not lie in the story line—it is undeniably a simple, predictable one. The power of the film lies in default by what the film suggests to the viewer by presenting the simple tale. Do “caring” parents really care for their children? Are the parents there during critical moments when they are needed the most?
One of the reasons for In a Better World to work magic was the Bier/Jensen effort to concentrate a lot more on the thoughts and actions of the growing-up children more than the adults in the film. There are so many sequences in the film that remind one of the 2003 Russian masterpiece Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return (dangers of heights, troubled youngsters who find solace in retreating to dangerous and isolated places, the father-son relationship). In the earlier Bier/Jensen film, the focus was on the adults and the lack of a complete childhood. However, the adult characters in In a Better World are equally developed even though the African segment is unbelievably predictable and clichéd, even though similar African warlords have dotted the African map in recent decades.
The Bier/Jensen treatise on relationships works this time around because it connects relationships with seeds that sow terrorism. The treatise worked even more because it seemed to promote Gandhian values. It works because it underscores the importance of parenting over philanthropic social work. The movie seems to scream “Look after the emotional needs of your family before you go out to help others in distant lands.” When a child needs his father most of all to talk, the father is too involved and tired by his well-meaning actions in a physically distant world. These are real scenarios today, and that is the key to the success of this film. All the elements of the film are real and that is what makes the film connect with the viewer. Perhaps Jensen ought to be complimented for his wonderful screenplay. The film has an optimistic ending though the English title suggests an element of doubt and presents a pessimistic nuance. The film does leave the audience yearning for a "better world" for all youngsters growing up today in this complex but interconnected global village.
Susanne Bier, as the director, needs to be complimented for the superb convincing performances she has elicited first from Mikael Persbrandt, as the surgeon and father of the one of the boys, and then the two boys Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Nielsen) that recall similar performances of young actors in certain films of François Truffaut and Louis Malle. Bier needs to be eqully complimented for her choice of locations that add to the veracity of the tale.
For viewers who value cinema that concentrate on “story, acting and theme” as the Dogme 95 group projects, In a Better World is a great film to watch and enjoy. The film having won the Golden Globe is now in the Oscar race, once again competing against the remarkable Mexican/Spanish film Biutiful. (And do the two films have a common link? Yes, both deal with parenting! And both have mesmerizing performances by the respective lead actors.) If the viewer goes solely by traditional filmmaking that the Dogme group propounds, then the Bier film would pip the Mexican/Spanish film to win the foreign film Oscar. However, if you step out of the Dogme world, Biutiful deserves the Oscar.
In a Better World, apart from the accolades mentioned above, also won the Grand jury award at the Rome International Film Festival, the Thessaloniki film festival's audience award, Best male actor for Mikael Presbrandt at the Tallinn Tarta Black Nights festival, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Sevilla Film festival.
P.S. The Mexican/Spanish film Biutiful and the Russian film The Return have been reviewed on this blog earlier.