Kids learning violence

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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 father (Thomsen ). Christian considers this, too, to be an act of violence, and resents his father for it. He cannot perceive the compassionate dimensions that such an act necessarily contains.

Even for wise adults, human emotion and the temptation of cathartic violence can sell principled pacifism out to easy aggression. The film juxtaposes the boys' budding, dangerous friendship with Anton's experiences in Africa. Anton is faced with providing medical care to a wounded militant who has committed atrocious crimes against local pregnant women. This provides the ultimate test to Anton's principles, particularly as those around him bay, understandably, for the man's blood.

Director Bier, assisted by a strong cast (Nielsen, in particular, possesses the natural charisma necessary to make Christian both frightening and sympathetic) negotiate the ideas contained in In a Better World with an abiding sense of humanity and dignity. This is a confronting and compelling film.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. Follow Tim on Twitter 

Topic tags: In a Better World, Susanne Bier, Mikael Persbrandt, William Jøhnk Nielsen, Markus Rygaard, oscar



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Existing comments

Many male Australians (and, I am sure, many female Australians) vividly recall schoolyard bullies and confrontations. For many people, instances of emotional bullying and 'abuse of power' issues continue well into their working lives. A lack of love leads to fear, which invariably leads to anger. Acted out, that fear-driven response to others and to ourselves diminishes us all. Have the Danes borrowed in part or thematically from Roland Joffé's 1986 masterpiece 'The Mission'? 'Hævnen' sounds like a powerful film; its complex message is well advocated by the reviewer. I am looking forward to seeing it. Thank you!
Barry G | 31 March 2011


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