In a Better World
This is not a Film
In stark contrast to just about every other prize handed out at the yearly Academy Awards, the best foreign film nominees are generally worth seeing for the obvious reasons. As the United States continues its steady economic and cultural decline, great art tends to be found elsewhere. As the winner of the 2010 best foreign film, In a Better World is a deeply nuanced and morally complex tale about revenge, one of society’s most deeply entrenched patterns of behavior and most virulent among its male members.
Directed and written by a Susanne Bier (writing credits are shared by Anders Thomas Jensen), this Danish film is nominally about bullying in a public school and at first blush seems to be covering the same territory as Evil, the Swedish film I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. Your natural tendency when watching Evil is to root for the hero who uses a combination of passive resistance and his fists to topple the sadistic upperclassmen in a snooty private school.
The two main protagonists of In a Better World are 12-year-old classmates Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) who we meet on the first day of class at a public school in an idyllic small seaside town in Denmark. Christian notices Elias being tormented by Sofus, the school bully who stands a head taller than he or Elias. Sofus and his posse like to pick on Elias because he is Swedish and because his top teeth are prominent—his nickname is “rat mouth”. If you have never been the butt of such teasing in junior high school, you should thank your lucky stars.
Christian, who has just moved to town from England where he was living with his father, is new to the school and like all newcomers—especially those smaller than Sofus—gets initiated: a basketball thrown in his face that bloodies his nose.
The next day Christian spots Sofus walking down the stairs into the boy’s room and follows him there, suspecting that he was up to no good. He spots Sofus warning Elias not to snitch on him for the treatment that he and Christian received the day before or else he would live to regret it. Advancing silently toward Sofus, whose back is turned toward him, Christian pulls a bicycle pump from his pocket and beats him over the head. As Sofus crawls along the bathroom floor sobbing in pain, Christian continues to beat him. To make sure he gets the message, he then pulls out a knife and holds it to Sofus’s throat. If he ever harms Elias or any other student again, he will kill him. As this transpires, Elias stands by in open-mouthed awe and admiration.
As Elias and Christian flee from the scene, Elias offers his help. He will hide the knife, thus making it impossible for Christian to be charged with a serious crime. When the principal meets with Christian a day later to get the facts on what happened, he denies using a knife but admits to beating the bully with a bicycle pump. After all, Sofus hit him first and he had to defend himself. Your sympathies are obviously with Christian at this point.
Elias lives with his mother, who is separated from his father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor working in Sudan but returned to Denmark for one of his occasional visits. One day the two boys, who have become fast friends, are with Anton in the middle of town and spot a scene that reminds them of what they endured from Sofus. Elias’s younger brother, a six year old by all appearances, is wrestling in the sandbox with another tot in a nearby playground. After Anton begins separating them, the other boy’s father spots them from afar and runs over to intercede. He falsely accuses Anton of mistreating his son and slaps him in the face. Instead of reacting like Christian the bold avenger, Anton retreats from the obviously hotheaded man and returns to his car with the three boys in tow. When they express consternation about his passivity, Anton lectures them about how mature men should act. They can’t accept the idea that this includes putting up with a slap in the face.
For the next few days, Elias gives his father a hard time about his “maturity”. Deciding that they need a lesson, Anton then brings the three boys along with him to the garage where the man works as a mechanic and is treated to more of the same. This time he gets slapped repeatedly and is told that unless he gets out, he would get his ass kicked royally. Outside, the boys upbraid Anton for putting up with the man’s abuse, clearly resenting a little sermon he delivers to them about the pointlessness of vengeance. Working in Sudan has obviously given him this perspective, but more generally he is the product of an education and a class that regards such violence as backward. To twelve year olds who have seen the benefit of a well-placed bicycle pump with their own eyes, this does not make much sense.
A few days later, while tinkering about in a barn on Christian’s property gathering together the components for a school project, the two boys discover some fireworks that belonged to Christian’s grandfather. Christian then has a brainstorm. They would extract the powder from the fireworks, make a pipe bomb, and blow the mechanic’s car to kingdom come.
While your initial reaction is to rub your hands in glee as you envision the two boys extracting vengeance and trashing Anton’s liberal pieties together in one fell swoop, things don’t go according to plans. Without giving away too much, I can say that the stunning climax of this most powerful film will subvert your expectations and make you think and feel deeply about the problem it is coping with, namely the tendency to resort to violence. While you can obviously understand it in political terms, as many of my readers would be expected to do, there is something going on psychologically in the film that runs much deeper and that will stick with you long after you see In a Better World, an effect generally associated with serious works of film art.
In a Better World can now be rented as a DVD from Netflix and should be on all film buff’s “must see” list.
A year later the best foreign picture of 2011 award was bestowed on A Separation, another decision that the academy can be proud of, a diamond surrounded by offal.
A Separation is an Iranian film directed by Asghar Farhadi. The title refers to the pending divorce of Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi), a middle-class couple who we first meeting in a Tehran court presenting their cases. Simin says that she wants a divorce because her husband Nader refuses to join her as an expatriate now that she has finally received a visa for the two of them and their ten-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). How can he leave Iran? His elderly father is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and someone has to look after him. Simin complains to the judge that the father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) can’t even recognize his son any more so what is the point? Nader replies that as long as he can recognize his father, he is obligated to look after him.
When they return from the courtroom, Simin begins packing her bags in preparation to live with her parents. While she won’t leave Iran without her daughter, she is so fed up with her husband that she refuses to live under the same roof with him. Wasting no time, Nader has lined up a caregiver named Houjat (Shahab Hosseini) to look after his father.
Since Houjat is desperate for work, she accepts Nader’s low pay and a long commute. Her husband Razieh (Sareh Bayat) lost his job as a cobbler and is so deeply in debt that creditors have had him arrested several times for failure to pay up. When she shows up for work with her young preschooler daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) the next day, she learns that the job is not only far more demanding than she could have ever expected, but presents particular challenges to a religious woman (she is always dressed in a chador.) When the old man urinates in his pants, she cannot get him to change his clothes. When she calls Nader at work to get further instructions, he tells her to bathe him—not a straightforward task for a religious woman. She then calls a cleric to get his approval, which she does receive.
Among all the other difficulties facing Houjat, she is also a few months pregnant and easily exhausted. As might be expected, the tasks of looking after someone with Alzheimer’s is a challenge for an experienced professional, let alone a young woman on her own. Things come to a head when Nader discovers that she has tied his father to the bed while she is out attending to her own needs. In a heated confrontation, Nader tells her to get out of the apartment. She is being fired for neglecting his father but also allegedly for stealing money. The first charge she admits to, but the second she denies. When she presses Nader for her day’s wage, he refuses—telling her that the stolen money will be her wage.
Refusing to leave until she receives satisfaction, Nader feels that he has no alternative but to physically evict her from the apartment. In the tumult at the front door, she falls down some stairs and suffers a miscarriage. This leads to a new session in court for Nader, this time for murder.
From this point on, the film becomes something of a courtroom drama as the judge tries to sift through the conflicting testimony of Nader and Houjat, who is accompanied by her unemployed husband who is one step away from either killing himself out of economic misery or Nader for causing the death of his unborn child.
Although the film is not a direct commentary on Iranian society, the contrast between the couples on either side could not be sharper. In many ways, they are the social base of both the Green movement as well as the religious and traditional base of Ahmadinejad. What makes the film so compelling is the failure of Iranian society to secure what the title of the other film refers to—a better world—for either party. This is a society that leaves care for the elderly up to the family and one in which you can be jailed for a failure to pay back debts.
But Asghar Farhadi is not a propagandist. He is far more interested in the moral dilemmas of ordinary people. The separation of a husband and wife over how to respond to a helpless elderly family member does not lend itself to facile solutions. Like In a Better World, you are dealing with contradictions of the sort that every human being has to deal with, as anybody with an aging parent would understand—including me. The only people who are above such problems are the one percent who can provide a staff of dozens to look after their own needs and any family member too ill to fend for themselves. The very people, in other words, who show up in $10,000 designer gowns and in Rolls Royce limousines for the yearly Academy Awards ceremony.
A Separation is now playing at the Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Theaters in New York. Since it is an academy award winner, I would assume that it could be seen in major cities everywhere. It is not to be missed.
On December 20, 2010 Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director of acclaimed films such as The White Balloon, Crimson Gold and Offside, was sentenced to six years in prison for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” Beyond the prison term, he was ordered to not make another film for 20 years and not attempt to leave the country once he was released. If you’ve seen any of Panahi’s films, you will understand that the Islamic Republic lost all credibility through this barbaric act. By corollary, those segments of the left that still refer to the clerical dictatorship as “revolutionary” have lost credibility as well.
This is not a Film is Panahi’s latest work, even though it is not a film in the conventional and–more importantly—legal sense. Made in what appears to be a two-hour time span on Persian New Year’s Eve (March 20, 2011), it lacks a narrative in either a fictional or documentary sense. It was shot in the director’s luxurious Tehran apartment while his wife and children were out giving gifts and celebrating. We see him talking on the phone with his lawyer about the pending prison sentence, making tea, feeding his daughter’s pet iguana Igi, and ruminating on his career. All the while you can hear fireworks in the distance, which until you learn their origin appear to be the results of fighting in the streets.
Panahi is filmed by his friend the documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb on a modest camcorder looking not that much more expensive than my new JVC. Sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, Panahi helps Mirtahmasb with an improvised tripod, a pack of cigarettes. As he shoots, Panahi uses his own IPhone to record Mirtahmasb behind his own camera. Despite the modesty of its means and despite the superficially meandering character of the work, this is one of the most important films to come out of Iran in this or any other year since it digs deep into the heart and soul of one of its outstanding artists and humanists.
Sectioning off a portion of a very large Persian rug with masking tape, Panahi creates a schematic of a room that was to be featured in a film that the Iranian censors nixed at the outset. In between reading passages from the banned script about a young woman attempting to go to college against the wishes of her tradition-minded parents, he reflects on artistic decisions he was making at the time, including the finer details of how a house was selected for filming.
The most memorable part of the film is the final fifteen minutes when Panahi joins the building’s janitor going floor-to-floor collecting garbage. The young man is studying art in graduate school and is very familiar with Panahi’s work and difficulties. The entire scene is filmed with an IPhone. Against all the expensive technology being deployed in Hollywood from CGI to 3D on behalf of soul-destroying garbage, the conclusion of This is not a Film stands above it like a colossus.
Unfortunately, time constraints prevented me from seeing the work until yesterday. It is showing through Tuesday night at the Film Forum in NYC and simply brilliant.