PARK CITY, UTAH - Danish director Susanne Bier's "In a Better World," which recently won the Academy Award for best foreign film, is a globe-spanning tale about the futility of revenge and the difficulty of forgiveness. When a Swedish surgeon living in Denmark leaves his broken marriage to work through his guilt in an African refugee camp, his son, bullied at school, falls under the spell of a new student with serious anger issues. The movie draws provocative parallels between sadistic African warlords, schoolyard bullies and homegrown terrorists.
The film is thought-provoking, beautifully shot, compellingly acted and suspenseful. In other words it's a typical Bier film, substantial and emotionally resonant.
While female filmmakers in America generally are ghettoized in stereotypical "women's pictures," Bier favors intense domestic dramas set against international backgrounds. In "Brothers" (2004) a Danish soldier held captive and tortured in Afghanistan returns to find his wife and brother entangled in an intense relationship. "After the Wedding" (2006) concerns the Danish manager of a Bombay orphanage who must confront relationships he left unresolved in Europe. It was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar in 2007.
In an interview during January's Sundance Film Festival, following the Golden Globes (where it won best foreign film) but preceding the Oscars, Bier said she hoped the awards attention would help her film find an audience in the United States, where subtitles are anathema.
"I was super happy for myself but not nearly as happy as for the film because I think it really makes a difference," the 50-year-old filmmaker said in lightly accented English. "It's a marker of recognition for the film and for some audiences who might be hesitant to see a Danish-language film."
American studios see value in Bier's films. Lionsgate remade "Brothers" in 2009, starring Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal, and almost all of her films have been optioned for U.S. remakes.
Violence on two continents
"In a Better World" was a hit in Denmark, where it was called "Revenge." Bier chose the more evocative English title for the film's U.S. release, fearing that audiences here would expect a Tony Scott-style thriller. The story shows an unnamed sub-Saharan country where militia leaders mutilate victims for sport, yet where there is a lot of joy and harmony away from the battlefield. Half a world away in green, comfortable, civilized Denmark, there is a lot of interpersonal conflict and unhappiness. In each place the desire for revenge is strong. The unspoken question seems to be, which is the better world?
For Bier, the answer is, both and neither. "I think the title suggests that hope comes from some kind of forgiveness. Some kind of embracing. So for me that's the better world."
Bier based some scenes of horrific violence in Africa on stories she gathered from the Doctors Without Borders medical-relief organization. The story of a sadistic bandit leader coming to the hospital camp with a leg wound "was built on something that really happened," she said. "We were very keen for those details to be right and realistic."
Even so, she said, "I don't think this movie is about atrocities in Africa." The themes of family conflict, the desire to strike out at people who have hurt you, the challenges in relationships of parents to children or friendship, are universal, Bier said.
Next up for Bier is a change of pace from heavy dramas. Late last month it was announced she was set to direct "All You Need Is Love," a romantic comedy, and she's now found her lead actor. Former James Bond Pierce Brosnan will star in the film, which is being prepped to shoot in Italy in May.
"Even if you do a movie with a lot of substance, a lot of questioning, it's still pretty fun to do it but it makes you think about stuff. Now, after a few movies in a row like that, maybe it's time to do something lighter."