Mark Metcalf
Moving Pictures

In a Better World

By - May 6th, 2011 04:00 am
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At the center of In a Better World (which in Danish is Hævnen) is the friendship of two young boys: Elias, a braces-wearing, brutally teased, awkward misfit; and Christian, the new boy in school whose mother has recently died of cancer and whose father is busy, distant and removed. Both of Elias’ parents are doctors. They are also separated, and trying to avoid divorce.

Elias’ father, Anton, spends much of each month running a clinic in Africa, where he is an active pacifist. By that I mean that he puts himself in harm’s way just by being in the African bush, where tribal and territorial antagonisms are made more violent with 21st century weapons and more pressurized with European greed for natural resources. But he consciously chooses to treat everyone who comes to his clinic; the brutalized as well as the brute. He never waivers from that resolve.

All images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

At home in Denmark, Anton chooses a non-aggressive path — what may be considered passive-aggressive by some. This becomes evident in the way he deals with his estranged wife. He doesn’t take a strong hand in trying to reconcile, but it is clear that the separation is not his choice. Nonetheless, Anton is there for his family when he is in his home country.

The critical moment comes when he breaks up a playground fight between his youngest son, who is about seven or eight years old, and another boy of the same age. The other boy’s father is a bully and a racist, and he slaps Anton around  for daring to ‘touch’ his son. In response, Anton simply turns his back and walks away. Elias is embarrassed, especially so because his new friend, Christian, questions the ‘manhood’ of his father.

Much of the film hinges on conceptions of manliness. It is not a question of sexuality, but instead what one must do to be considered a ‘man’. I have a sixteen year old son who often thinks that I don’t stand up for myself enough. He actually thinks I am a coward about certain things. I think the world of television, movies, and video games offer such a dynamic vision of how people relate to each other that my choice  to avoid a fight rather than enter into one is seen as pretty uninteresting. Then again, what century are we living in where, to be considered a ‘man’ by your children, you must throw a punch or at least thump your chest and storm around the clearing throwing bushes?

As the film unfolds, young Christian eventually chooses to seek revenge for Elias, but his actions have complicated consequences.

There is something awkward about the way the film is made. It isn’t slick and glossy and there are no people that most of us would recognize as ‘stars’. There is no haunting theme song or fast-paced editing. It is a movie about people and about how complicated life can become no matter how intelligent you are or how many times you choose to ‘do the right thing’. And that is its strength.

In A Better World opens Friday, May 6 at The Oriental Theater. For more information, click here.

Categories: Movies, Videos

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