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Kids learning violence

  • 31 March 2011

In a Better World (MA). Director: Susanne Bier. Starring: Mikael Persbrandt, William Jøhnk Nielsen, Markus Rygaard, Ulrich Thomsen . 118 minutes

The English-release title of this Danish film, In a Better World, evokes the idea of a utopia where justice is universal and moral decisions easy. This ironic fancy is echoed in the phonetic similarity of the Danish title, Hævnen, to 'haven' or 'heaven'. In fact, hævnen translates literally as 'vengeance'.

Indeed, In a Better World, which won the Oscar for best foreign language feature earlier this year, can be taken as a meditation upon the various human responses to violence, in a world where both justice and morality can be difficult to either define or obtain.

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Shortly after the death of his mother, young boy Christian (Nielsen) starts at a new school. There he meets social outcast Elias (Rygaard), a victim of bullying, whose parents have divorced, and whose doctor father Anton (Persbrandt) is frequently overseas working in an African refugee camp. Charismatic Christian sees in Elias a potential confidant and protégé.

The bullying Elias endures from one of his peers is brutal and frequent. When Christian attempts to stand up for him, he too is brutalised. Elias has resigned himself to this fraught existence, but Christian won't stand for it. He retaliates with more severe violence than that which he suffered himself. This not only defeats the bully, but earns his respect. Christian and Elias have become dark allies, and learned a frightening lesson about the capacity of violence to still conflicts.

(I'm sure Casey Heynes, who became an internet hero when a video of his violent retaliation against a peer's physical taunts became a hit on YouTube, could relate.)

Such tangible lessons of the schoolyard prove difficult to shake. Appalled by Christian's reverence for violence and the potential influence this might have on Elias, Anton attempts to provide the boys with a demonstration of Gandhian non-violence. He stands placidly during an altercation with a slap-happy mechanic, resisting the urge to strike back. The nuances of his 'moral victory' are no doubt missed by his bullish aggressor. They are certainly lost on the boys, particularly the increasingly angry Christian.

The film offers various other, more subtle permutations of violence. Christian's apparent lack of empathy stems from his internalisation of fierce emotions regarding his mother's death. It is implied that her death came about, after a long illness, through an act of passive euthanasia by Christian's