In A Better World is the winner for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It is only the third of the five nominees I’ve seen: the others being Canada’s Incendies and Spain’s Biutiful. I finally had the chance to see In A Better World a while back. This film has a story line that really gets one thinking.
The film begins as a Danish boy named Christian reads a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. He appears calm and composed but his mother’s death troubles him. He and his father move from London to Denmark where he spends his spare time on the roof of his grandfather’s silo looking out. We then meet Anton, a Swedish doctor who lives in Denmark but spends most of his time working in a refugee camp in Sudan. The villagers, especially the children, regard him as a hero but home life is difficult as he is on the verge of a divorce and he doesn’t see his sons as often as he’d like.
Their paths cross as Anton drops his son Elias off to school. A group of bullies taunt Elias because of his awkward looks. As Christian interferes, he too is assaulted. As Elias is bullied again the next day, Christian assaults the bully with his bike pump and threatens him with a knife at his throat never to hurt him again. Anton hopes to teach the two boys about the wrongs of violence as he himself witnesses it in the refugee camp each day. He gets a chance as his son is fighting with another boy in a playground and the father of the other son hits Anton. From atop the silo, Christian is able to spot where the man who hit Anton works by his car. Anton takes the boys again to see him confront the man where he gets hit again. Anton wants the boys to see how violence fails but they don’t get his intended message.
Later Anton is called back to work in the refugee camp. He soon has to deal with tending to the wounded warlord despite villagers pleading for him not to help. It’s later after a female patient dies that the warlord coming asking for her body that Anton leads him out where he is met by villagers ready to lynch him. After coming across fireworks in the silo, Christian gets an idea to create a bomb to blow up Anton’s attacker’s van. Meanwhile Christian’s relationship with his father takes a turn for the worse as Christian lets out his frustrations about his mother’s death, including his father’s failed promise that his mother would get better. Elias tries to talk to his father via Skype about Christian’s plan but Anton is exhausted after a stressful day. Elias then agrees to Christian’s plan. They go out one Sunday when no one is to be around and set the bomb off under the van. As Elias notices joggers, he wards them off but the bomb explodes knocking him unconscious.
Anton comes rushing back to Denmark after learning Anton is unconscious and hospitalized. When Christian tries to visit Elias in the hospital, Elias’ mother tells him to leave and calls him a ‘brat’ and a ‘psychopathic killer.’ Christian runs off and goes to the top of the silo contemplating to jump, only to be stopped by Anton. He reconciles with his father and goes to visit Elias, relieved knowing that Elias is alive and recovering well. The movie ends as Anton returns back to Sudan and is greeted by the adoring children.
There are a lot of subjects in this film. One of which is about communication barriers between people. There’s the main protagonist Anton struggling with communicating to his wife while they’re on the verge of splitting up. Anton again struggling to be there for Elias while he’s thousands of miles away in Sudan. Anton struggling to be an idealist to the boys and show how weak violence is when the boys expect Anton to be a hero. Christian struggles to relate with his father just after his mother’s death. He also struggles with the personal troubles of himself. There’s also the subject of making hard decisions. Anton has a duty of being a doctor to the refugees while Elias faces problems of his own. Anton is faced with a hard decision of being a doctor to the wounded landlord while the people insist that he doesn’t help him. Overall Anton is trying to be the man of reason and he has his share of successes and failures. Elias makes a tough decision whether to rejects Christian’s plan to blow up his father’s enemy’s van or not. All of which deliver in the results in the choices they make, or fail to make.
This is another impressive script from Susanne Bier. Although I have not seen her past works, I know she has developed a reputation. She has produced many works in Sweden and Denmark and even has one American release: 2007’s Things We Lost in The Fire. This is her latest work. The script she co-wrote with Anders Thomas Jensen also touches base on another subject of the film. Before they wrote the script for the film, Bier and Jensen had a discussion about how Denmark is perceived as having a harmonious society. They then wanted to write a story where dramatic turns of events would disrupt the image of a place perceived as blissful. The film’s original title is Hævnen, which is Danish for ‘revenge’. This film is a stark reminder that it’s quite possible in countries like Denmark that appear to be harmonious and peaceful, violence can happen through the actions of a single instigator. The film does a good job of setting situations of violence, both in Denmark and Sudan, while capturing the perceived peacefulness of Denmark at the same time.
The acting in the film was also excellent. The lead actor, Mikael Persbrandt, was excellent in portraying a man trying to maintain peace and show rational thought in hugely stressful situations both on the job and at home. Young actor William Johnk Neilsen was excellent as the troubled Christian. Also excellent were the performances of Trine Dyrholm and Markus Rygaard. The film did a good job of not overdramatizing events and maintaining its themes along with the storytelling. The cinematography added to the storytelling of how acts of violence can happen in such a peaceful place like Denmark.
It’s hard to say if In A Better World deserved the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I’d hate to compare it against its rivals. Nevertheless it was a very good film in its own right. It keeps one thinking as they leave the theatre.
The French/Arabic-language film Of Gods And Men doesn’t have the type of subject matter that would normally bring in a large crowd. The film is about Cicstercian Monks living in a small village in Algeria facing threats from fundamentalist terrorist groups. Nevertheless those lucky enough to see it will love it for what it is.
This film is based on an incident that happened in 1996. Seven French monks from the Algerian village of Tibhirine were found decapitated. The film focuses on the days just before they were killed. They were a group of eight monks who lived in a monastery in Tibhirine. They devoted their lives to monk rituals of gardening, distributing medical help to locals and religious devotions. They were present at the village during times of celebration and they conversed with the villagers regularly. They all did this during a time of the Algerian Civil War. Religious extremists were committing acts of brutality amongst foreigners and their own people. The pressure was felt by the monks. Christian, the leader and resident religious scholar, tells authorities they will not go. However this is hotly debated with the other monks as some fear for their own safety. Christian then gives the men time to decide whether to leave or not. News gets grimmer by the moment. They even face potential threats of their own. Authorities of the Algerian government request they leave for their lives. The villagers however convince them of how vital they are to the community. In the end, as one brother pays a visit to the monastery, they all vote to stay. Late in the night, seven of the nine are found, captured and taken away. Those would be their last minutes known to be alive.
The film has many great qualities. Its best technical quality was the cinematography as it added to the film in showcasing the landscape in its best splendor. The film was well-directed and well-written by French director Xavier Beauvois. The script he co-wrote with Etienne Comar was excellent and very no-nonsense as it cut at the heart of the monks and the village they served. As important as it was to show the events that happened leading up to the times, the script’s biggest focus was on the monks and their lives. It was more about people than events. Even the scene of the last dinner with the music of Swan Lake in the background was done with the focus on the men.
The biggest strength of the movie is definitely the acting. Of all performances, the two that stood out were that of Christian the leader and Luc the doctor. Lambert Wilson’s performance of Christian was excellent and the most intense. Often he said more in his scenes of silence than he did with his spoken parts. Michael Lonsdale’s performance of Luc the Doctor was the best supporting performance. There wasn’t a hint of phoniness in it.
As for the monks as a whole, the most remarkable thing about the film is its ability to give three-dimensional portrayal of monk characters. The film not only showed them in their prayer life but also showed the devotion during their prayers. The film showed them in their occupations and how important they were to the village. The film showed their convictions and their beliefs. The film showed the bond between the men. Above all, it was alll done in a three-dimensional manner. This is very rare for a film to accomplish that feat. Even back during the days of the Hays Code–where one of the rules was that religious figures were to be depicted in a positive manner–religious figures were still two-dimensional at the most. Even the negative depictions of religious figures that came once the Hays Code was dropped in the 60’s as ‘censorship’ or ‘restrictive of creativity’–were also two dimensional and often too stockish. This film has to be the most realistic and inside-out portrayal of religious characters, in both character and their vocation, that I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Even 1997’s The Apostle doesn’t compare as Robert Duvall’s portrayal of a minister had more focus on his passion and personal demons than on his vocation.
Also vital is the ending of the film. It is not known who exactly killed the monks. An Islamic extremist group has claimed responsibility but recent documents from the French secret service claim that the Algerian army carried it out as a mistake during the rescue attempt. The film doesn’t pick one group at fault as the monks are captured in the dead of night with the darkness hiding their identity.
There may be some nervous in seeing this film, feeling it might try to ‘convert’ them to Catholicism. For the record, director Xavier Beauvois has not directed a religious film in the past. One thing we should note is that while the monks lived at the monastery, there’s no scene of them trying to convert any of the villagers from Islam. In fact Brother Christian was as knowledgeable about the Koran as he was about the Bible. When religion extremists threatened to shoot the brothers in one instance, Brother Christian quoted a passage from the Koran which caused the leader to drop his gun and order his followers to leave. I believe Beauvois wanted to show that for the monks, the faith was mightier than the sword. Also in the script was a scene where the monks talk about the difference between the Islamics and ‘Islamists’. This is good for a time when religion faces a lot of flack from religious dissenters. I believe that may have been another point from Beauvois that it’s important for one to recognize the believers from the ‘beliefists’.
This film has won a lot of accolades. It won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The Grand Prix is second to the Palme d’Or as the most prestigious award at the Festival. Other nominations and awards have followed such as wins at France’s Cesar Awards, nominations at the European Film Awards, nominated for Best Film Not In The English Language at Britain’s BAFTA awards and was France’s official entry for the 2010 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film was well received by critics here in North America and has a 91% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Although this is a movie that makes for excellent viewing for Catholic communities, it’s not completely 100% ‘safe’ for everyone. There is a few profanities utters, including one by a monk. There are also some scenes of violence. The most violence is the scene of soldiers being cut at the throat by the extremists. Most of the violence is only seen through news footage.
For writers and directors with religious values, this film offers a ray of hope for those who want to break into film making. It shows that a film showcasing religious values can not only be shown on the big screen but also be written and produced well. That has long been the dilemma ever since the Hays Code has been lifted. This was best summed up in a quote by Catholic scriptwriter/acting school director Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington:
I realized coming (to Hollywood) that it’s not so much Hollywood is persecuting the Church as much as it was the Church was committing suicide in Hollywood. Big difference. So I basically wrote an article about it saying that Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian as so much as it’s anti-bad art, and we’re just giving it schlock.
She states a major hurdle here as all too often a lot of Christian writers have written a lot of scrpits viewed by Hollywood as sub-standard in skill while the more liberal writers seem to know how to write for the screen. It’s a hugely difficult task to write a film of positive values or strong faith for the general audience without crossing the line of being schmaltzy or manipulative. Of Gods And Men shows that it can be done and it’s just a matter of learning how to do things right.
If you’re fortunate enough to have it come to your city, I highly recommend you see Of Gods And Men. Even if you don’t buy the Catholic faith or want a movie with preachy religious themes, it’s a film worth watching. It’s as much about people and their devotion to their beliefs as it is about an incident that happened. Even with the tragic ending, it tells a lot about the human spirit that will stay with the viewer once they leave the theatre.