In a Better World is the sort of movie that wins the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This isn’t a compliment. Susanne Bier’s new Danish-Swedish globalization thriller exposes conflicts between cultures, countries, classes, and cohorts, and then promptly resolves them all.
One boy feels neglected because his father’s still mourning his mother’s death; another kid cries lonesome because his father’s away at work. Dad #2’s a humanitarian worker in Kenya, where a fat, laughing, monstrous black warlord (dead eye, maggot-ridden leg) smacks his lips over a woman. Back home the kids, upset over being bullied, lash out by building a bomb. Everyone eventually realizes their mistakes. No good person hurts in a way that can’t be healed. All wounds dissolve within renewed family bonds.
“Violence begets violence,” Monsieur Verdoux said, quite rightly. The dominant theme I’ve been noticing in many of this year’s festival movies is hope for peace begetting peace. They’re anti-vengeance films in which social structures cause conflict rather than individual actors, and in which the solution is to work on the system.
In a Better World, by contrast, argues that a small group of individuals can change the world through clear, simple steps. Kill the warlord; stop building bombs; love thy wife and child. The film ends with African children singing, and Dad #2 smiling. The film’s acting and photography are pleasing, but its story reeks. We’ve reached a better world, it seems to say, to which I can only say, “Bullshit.”
In a Better World will play in North America under Sony Pictures Classics’s aegis. Gesher will have no such luck. You can understand why, since the new Iranian film’s priorities prove the opposite of In a Better World’s: dark-skinned characters over lighter ones, working-class over bourgeois, activity over emotion, long shots over close-ups, lengthy takes over quick cuts, a fixed camera over a mobile one, questions over answers. It shows a side of the world that you may never see again in a movie. It’s also the best fiction film that I’ve seen at the festival.
The characters are three young ocean refinery employees. The slim plot concerns their working long hours, then looking to entertain themselves once they get off. Long scenes depict the men digging sludge out of the ground; more fleeting moments show them stuffing money into dolls for far-off family members, or posting fashion photos on their walls.
Alison Willmore’s excellent IFC review smartly compares Gesher to the films of Jia Zhang-ke, the Chinese director who specializes in showing small people that industrialization’s dwarfing further. Jia’s character’s fantasies, though, are often depicted overtly, whether via the cellphone animations flying through The World or the professional actors posing as factory workers in 24 City. By contrast, Gesher gives its characters mostly the heaven and hell of the lapping ocean and flame-licking refinery to look between. They’re living in a material world; whatever world they’re imagining is one the film leaves you to imagine alongside them.
Going with Gesher’s minimalism itself takes imagination. It’s tough to sell most viewers on movies like Gesher largely because the works demand you bring so much to them (it’s possible to sit through a Pedro Costa movie without knowing any characters’ names). Yet there are simple, basic reasons for watching this film. One is that it’s gorgeous; another is that it rings true. There’s a scene where the men, for activity, gang-rape a girl. A film like Bier’s would zoom a handheld camera in and around cackling assailants while continually cutting back to a horrified European audience stand-in. Gesher, by contrast, shows a silhouette in a room, with men smoking outside.
All films are fiction to some degree, even documentary, but they’re also all varyingly authentic. To clarify: When critics use words like “truth” and “honesty,” they’re often talking about whether they believe a work’s acting and dialogue possess verisimilitude. But a much more useful concern is whether a movie’s overall perspective proves legitimate. You leave In a Better World thinking Whity’s saved Africa; you leave Gesher thinking that a worker’s life can contain moments of beauty, but that fixing toilets is still a drag.
I should say that I’m much closer culturally to In a Better World’s characters than to Gesher’s, which is partly why I can reject the first film so readily; by contrast, I feel more comfortable accepting Gesher because it depicts a culture I know less well, in a way I’m ready to believe. The movies we value reflect the way we want to view the world. Formal analysis and reference-making can only temporarily disguise the fact that I prize Gesher because it offers a version of truth that appeals to me. I can understand someone disliking it for violating their own sense of the real, like the woman at my screening who asked director Vahid Vakilifar how he could show men abusing a woman so casually. Vakilifar responded, “Let’s not deceive ourselves, we are all witnesses to these events.” I love this movie, largely because I agree with him; I suspect that whether you like it depends on whether you do.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs through October 23. For more information, click here.