In a Better World (2011)

Directed by Susanne Bier
Written by Anders Thomas Jensen

Each year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences nominates five films in the foreign language category and each year the film or two that people have actually seen in America loses to something that no one has even heard of. This past Oscars ceremony that film that won was Susanne Bier’s In a Better World which comes from Denmark. It won the award all the way back in February and not until now are American audiences getting to see what all the buzz is about.

The film centers around two Danish boys. One, Christian, has just lost his mother and moved from London with his father back to Denmark. He keeps to himself and seems to blame his father for his mother’s death from cancer. The other boy, Elias, is the son of two doctors. His father works mostly abroad, providing a third world country with much needed medicine. His mother works in Denmark at a hospital, but due to recent marital strife, the two have separated. Add that to the fact that Elias gets bullied everyday at school and the filmmakers have thrown the kitchen sink at the audience. It can’t get much worse until a friendship blossoms between Christian and Elias and the two plot against a man who has done evil.

The circumstances of the story seem so melodramatic and unlikely that the film may at first seem too contrived and constructed, but peel back the layers of the film and discover a dark, yet beautiful portrait of humanity and the many telling moral questions that people must deal with in this world. At every turn director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen are asking important, relevant, and current philosophical and moral questions. The characters are presented with a series of challenging decisions and not every time do they make the choice that necessarily makes the most sense.

Ample time is spent with each of the characters so that every time something happens, it happens with reason. It is all about the little moments that are captured here: the look of a face or body language of a character. But whatever it may be, it is extremely effective in being able to convey the emotions of the characters at any given time in the narrative. Perhaps with that comes the only negative about the film: the fact that it drags, even if for just a few fleeting frames. But with all of the heavy, deep questions which the film raises with its characters, it only seems fitting that these brief pauses be inserted to allow the audience time to reflect on what they have seen.

Whether or not In a Better World deserved to win Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Oscars is an irrelevant question. The better questions are presented in Susanne Bier’s film, which offers some, but not all of the answers. At every turn is another heartbreak and at every bend in the road, the chance of hope. But soon the hope is folded back into the sense of loneliness and despair that surrounds these characters. Yet, somehow, they find a way to overcome their mistakes and perhaps one day find the better world which they all seek.

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