“In A Better World”
“In A Better World” (“Heaven”) is a Danish film about two families that intersect dramatically through their children, which a lot of people can relate to. It’s also about peace-loving people trying to deal with the violence all around them, which almost everyone can identify with.
Anton (Michael Persbrandt) is a Swedish physician living in Denmark who commutes to Africa, to help the needy villagers who have no doctor, but he’s frustrated by the horrible violence he witnesses there: pregnant women with their bellies slashed open, because of some sectarian strife that’s difficult to reconcile with the happy faces of the carefree children who run after his truck shouting in singsong unison “How are you? How are you?”
Anton’s son, unmercifully bullied by the bigger boys at school, befriends the new kid, the quiet one. But he has problems of his own. His Mom has died of cancer, and he still resents the way his Dad told him that his Mom was going to get better. He’s also dealing with the even darker aspects of terminal illness: his Mom in so much pain that she was wishing she would die, and her Dad so weary of constantly caring for her that he found himself wishing the same thing. How could the boy not be confused and angry? The Dad emotionally retreats, and the boy stands up to the school bully for his new friend’s sake. But then he experiences the darker side of succumbing to the rage: it feels powerful.
Anton, desperate to show the boys that violence is not the answer, allows himself to be physically assaulted by a man on the playground, angry because Anton had tried to stop a quarrel, and physically restrained his son. But the non-violent teaching moment backfires. The boys think Anton is just a wuss.
Meanwhile, Anton’s marriage is falling apart. We aren’t told why he keeps apologizing to his estranged wife, but in a way, it doesn’t matter. She isn’t having any of his remorse.
Much to Anton’s chagrin, things start escalating both in Africa and in Denmark , his two homes. In Africa , it becomes increasingly difficult to remain neutral, as the warlord who’s doing all the dismembering himself shows up at the clinic for medical treatment. And back in Denmark , the boys have gotten themselves into some serious trouble, and Anton must decide how he is going to deal with the consequences of their wrong choices---while struggling with how to forgive the sin but still love the sinner.
Despite the subtitles, and the repeated change of venue, this film manages an internal cohesion that just pulls the viewer through the moral quagmire. It’s a remarkable portrait of well-meaning people dealing not only with the inevitable grey areas, but with the blackness that threatens to engulf everyone. No wonder it won the Oscar and the Golden Globe for best foreign language film. It connects with us all.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas