Each year, among cranky film snobs who actually deign to pay attention to the Oscars, few categories cause conniptions as seismic as Best Foreign Language Film.
To hardened cinephiles, the films that make it through the Academy's balloting process appear to be the ones gruel-thin enough to offend the fewest people, but they're also generally ignored by the mainstream audiences they seem calculated to attract. If they please anyone, it's a small subset of filmgoers who flatter themselves and their college degrees by sitting through what are, essentially, the Ron Howard or Lawrence Kasdan films of other lands.
This isn't entirely fair, and not just because every once in a while, a wild card such as last year's Dogtooth sneaks in. This view also doesn't account for the positive effect of Americans engaging with subtitled films and non-English-speaking actors, as well as cultural and historical frameworks not their own. Films such as The Lives of Others and The Secret in Their Eyes place their dramas within the context of the century's major events, organizing moral choices around the flashpoint at which human psychology and world history collide.
And then there's a film like Susanne Bier's In a Better World, which won the 2010 Foreign Language Oscar. From Denmark, this movie attempts to portray a kind of history of the present. That it fails miserably makes it precisely the sort of pandering, half-baked entry that lends credence to the Oscar-haters' worst accusations. Ostensibly a global bulletin on the hot topic of bullying, In a Better World expands the idea of "bullies" with a forced elasticity, stretching it until it has no meaning whatsoever.
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor working in Kenya, patching up victims of a vicious warlord. Meanwhile, his son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), is relentlessly tormented and beaten at school. He soon meets new student Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), whose mother has just died of cancer. Scrapping for a fight, he begins his friendship with Elias by beating the crap out of Elias' main persecutor with a bicycle pump. Meanwhile, Christian blames his seemingly benign father (Danish film stalwart Ulrich Thomsen) for his mother's demise. Before long, the kids are exploring just what to do with their rage, with Elias as the sensitive one following along.
Bier's films tend toward the emotionally expulsive (she made the original Brothers, along with the transplant drama Open Hearts), and she forgos the logic of who these characters are. In a Better World uses the father-son relationships, as well as other male-male confrontations, to pick at tired cultural scabs regarding what constitutes a "real man." She and her screenwriter, Anders Thomas Jensen, have nothing insightful to say on the topic, so they pile more and more extreme incidents on top of each other.
Bier joins them together with contemplative clichés: fast-moving clouds; scattering flocks of birds; and the dusty, smiling children of Africa. But the real questions of why the strong exploit the weak are left aside. In a way, the film's English title is accurate in its forlorn shoulder-shrug: "In a better world, none of this would happen, but ..." The film's original Danish title, Hævnen, speaks more honestly to what Bier and Jensen have on their minds. It means "revenge."