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On movies: 'In a Better World' brings strong performances to cinema of ideas

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2011 - "In a Better World," a strong Danish movie that won this year's Oscar for best foreign-language film, is a thought-provoking parable that unfolds on two continents.

The movie begins in the blowing sands of a refugee camp in Africa. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a tough, idealistic Swedish-born doctor, regularly visits the camp and works to the point of exhaustion treating victims of tropical disease and violence. He tries to steel himself against the suffering and brutality he sees around him, but he still finds himself emotionally shattered when he is brought pregnant women whose bellies have been slashed open with machetes by a local warlord and his gang.

Then the scene shifts to Denmark and a deceptively placid town by the sea. We meet, at his mother's funeral, an angry boy named Christian, superbly played by William Johnk Nielsen in a riveting portrayal of quivering Oedipal rage. Christian's mother has died of cancer, and he has been brought to live with his Danish grandmother. His neglectful father, a businessman with offices in London, is seldom home.

On his first day at the local school, Christian befriends Elias (Markus Rygaard), who has been chosen as the main target of torment by the school bullies. Led by a boy who seems bigger than his classmates, the gang pushes Elias around and steals the valves out of his bicycle tires and insults him by calling him "a dumb Swede." The significance of this supposed insult, beyond suggesting that tribalism is hardly confined to Africa, emerges as the story proceeds.

Elias's instincts are submissive, but Christian is primed for violence. He wins Elias's devotion by striking back at the main bully in a sudden attack that, while shocking -- at one point, a hunting knife comes into play --seems well deserved, particularly since the naive school administrators have done nothing to stop the bullying.

Christian's attack cows the bully, but Christian is still angry at the world, and he plots an even more dramatic act of violence -- almost of terrorism -- against an adult who offends him. Elias reluctantly agrees to help. Meanwhile, in Africa, Anton is faced with a moral dilemma -- the local warlord arrives in the refugee camp, surrounded by armed guards, and demands treatment for a badly infected leg. By this point, we have learned that Anton is Elias's father, and the shared problem of how to deal with a bully is emotionally heightened for Anton by the level of murderous violence the warlord is responsible for.

"In A Better World" belongs clearly to the cinema of ideas. It raises important questions about human relations, calls into question certain liberal values, and makes revealing comparisons between two seemingly quite different worlds.

The film can be melodramatic, and sometimes the symbolic comparisons between the two worlds of Africa and Denmark can seem a little forced. But the acting is superb, and the intricate two-pronged narrative, from a script by Anders Thomas Jensen, is compelling. The direction, by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, is sure-handed, with a forceful emotional rhythm that builds slowly and effectively from beginning to end. The series of climaxes that unfold over the last 10 or 15 minutes are emotionally satisfying without feeling forced.

Opens Friday, May 6.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon. 

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement