Morality is not Clear Cut

This is my review of In A Better World [DVD].

This skilfully shot, well-acted and tightly scripted Danish film deserves its Oscar. It will appeal to people of all ages and nationalities. You can sit back and view it simply as a "good yarn" about a couple of barely teenage boys who slip into delinquency for moral reasons, following a warped logic which may stem from unintentional neglect by their well-meaning, hardworking middle-class parents. If you wish, you can ponder the film's messages on a deeper level, focusing on the issues which strike a chord with your own concerns. In fact, the last thing this film does is preach. Instead, it highlights the complexity of morality.

Is Anton, the idealistic, pacifist surgeon to be admired for devoting his working life to caring for people in what looks like a poverty-stricken refugee camp somewhere in Africa, or is he selfishly avoiding his guilt over his estranged wife and neglecting his two young sons back in Denmark in the process? Is he right to agree to treat the local villain when his black colleagues wish to leave the man to rot? Has he failed morally when he is eventually driven to give way to righteous anger? Is there one moral standard for a brutal, impoverished developing country and another for liberal, affluent Denmark? Is Anton hopelessly naive to insist that "violence only begats violence" to the extent that he literally "turns the other cheek" when an aggressive man punches him in front of his two sons, one of whom is Elias, with his inaptly named friend Christian a sceptical observer?

Christian's fierce sense of justice – his determination neither to be bullied, nor to let a bully go unpunished – seems more realistic, but he takes it too far. To what extent can his behaviour be condoned as a reaction against grief over his mother's death, and his father's inability to communicate honestly with him? How much more harshly would Christian and his tag-along sidekick Elias be punished for their attempts to take justice into their own hands if they were working class kids?

I agree that the ending is a little trite, and for that reason have withheld a star, perhaps unfairly since you could argue that a predictably gloomy Scandinavian ending could "turn off" more viewers than it satisfies. The plot, often shocking and sad, is saved from grimness by frequent touches of humour. After Anton's rather unwise confrontation of a bully in his workshop, to try to demonstrate to the boys how words win out over physical violence, Christian astutely observes, "But he didn't look as if he thought he's lost!" Later, when the two boys construct a potentially lethal bomb, they choose to test it out on the school project over which they have laboured for days. Their excitement over the explosion completely overrides any concerns about the waste of their work, or how they will explain its disappearance. The earnest ineffectiveness of the teachers at the boy's school is also entertaining.

There are moments of pathos, say in Anton's attempts to build bridges with the wife who loves him but cannot accept his past infidelity, or in Christian's father's halting attempts to speak of his complex emotions over the painful death of a wife to whom he may not have been faithful.

I recommend this film as a gripping and thought-provoking human drama – a popular film which stimulates you to work out your own message.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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