In A Better World: Oscar winner now on DVD
The Danish director Susanne Bier makes films about families, couples, kids and the ways their lives intersect, collide, and come apart. Her scenarios are serious, high-stakes set-ups, and she films them with a sunlit immediacy, often with an intimate handheld camera. It might then comes as a rude shock to American audiences, fattened on a diet of facile, cliched domestic dramas with their predictable third acts of heartwarming platitudes, to come across a movie like Bier’s In A Better World, which won the recent Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and was, of course, hard to find at theaters. It’s available on DVD, as are all of her films, and if you spend the time with her pictures, you’ll be immersed in a body of work in which the coincidences of real life– happenstance, random encounters, brief friendships–pile up and lead inevitably to powerful, often gut-wrenching climaxes.
In A Better World follows the friendship of two middle school boys who come together out of necessity. One is bullied by bigger kids. His parents are estranged, but involved in his life, even though his dad works in Africa much of the time as a doctor in a refugee camp and he carries the abiding will of a pacifist with him into dealings with the local warlord as well as with a brutish car mechanic he has a run-in with back home. The other kid recently lost his mother to cancer. He is angry at his own father, brooding, contemptuous and combative. He defends the bullied kid and they strike up a tense friendship that turns dangerous when the protector decides to seek revenge. He first targets the lead bully and then the man who humiliated the other boy’s father. The plot might seem farfetched, but Bier has an excellent command of the material. She builds the relationships slowly, getting at the tenuous nature of bonds formed from desperate circumstances, and she builds three dimensions in her characters with deft, telling strokes.
Accusations and recriminations are whispered or hurled loudly between kids and adults alike. Past mistakes lie between father and son or husband and wife. Old wounds are reopened for new attacks. The parents may have once been beautiful and young and restless, but we meet them when their faces are tired, lined with worry, still accounting for their own missteps and regrets, now faced with raising kids who have troubles of their own.
Bier’s facility with the blending of family dynamics extends to other countries as well. Here and in at least two earlier pictures, Brothers and After The Wedding, she includes scenes shot in the dusty, treacherous territory of the Third World, places such as India and Afghanistan and West Africa. She draws sharp contrasts between the life and death struggles of soldiers, warriors and refugees and the more pedestrian concerns of well-kept families in modern cities, suggesting that matters of fate, forgiveness, and hate cross continents as well as generations. Revenge and death, reconciliation and recrimination, friends, bullies, lovers: they’re part of what binds us together as humans. It’s that essential humanity, hard-won but fragile, which haunts the contours of her films. In A Better World might be telling us that yes, in a better world, better than the one we currently inhabit, all struggles, all battles, might come to and end through a simple act of recognition: we are all alike.