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More than any filmmaker in recent memory, the Danish director Susanne Bier examines familial breakdown with an eye toward rupture in the larger social order. In After the Wedding (2006), the protagonist operated a charity in India but his domestic life was in complete disarray. Now, in the powerful In a Better World, written by her longtime collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen, and which just had its world premiere in Toronto, the main adult character, Anton (the sensational Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt), is a doctor who spends much of his time in Africa (it could be Darfur) treating the maltreated in a makeshift camp.

Back in Denmark, however, he and his wife are separated on account of his infidelity, and his son is picked on by bullies at school. A pacifist by nature, he is able to stand up to a nasty warlord who commits ghastly atrocities, even if he does treat his wound, but back on the home front, turns the other cheek when slapped by a working-class auto mechanic.

For his son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), and the kid’s best friend, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), filled with rage over the loss of his mother and the perceived insensitivity of his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), Anton is a wimp. They do not see pacifism as anything noble or ethical; for them, it is a sign of weakness. Christian especially thinks that fighting aggressively proves to the bullies that one is tough and not to be played with.

The boys take things into their own hands. Anton’s revenge is configured by the two boys. They will fill pipes with explosive material obtained over the internet and blow up the mechanic’s car. When two people appear at the van just as the bomb is set to go off, Elias runs and saves them and nearly loses his life in the process. A guilt-ridden Christian seriously considers taking his own. The chain of events does succeed in bringing Anton and his wife back together, and softening Christian’s robotic behavior.

Bier explains why she shifts between the poverty in Africa and upper-middle-class Danish society.

“When you are from a tiny, tiny country, and there is a sense of being in a closed safe haven, I feel the need to say that we are not an island, that the Third World is just as much a part of the world as the closer countries.

“The similarities are greater than the differences. It’s banal to say that we are all human beings, but it’s true. For the past five or six years, Denmark has moved in the direction of hostile tendencies. This is not a political film: It’s about morals, basic human values.”

Anton fits the mold that runs throughout Bier’s work. “He’s a real idealist, a hero. But he’s also a flawed human being. I like the complexity of someone who is imperfect. They have the best intentions, but like all humans, they can fail.”

For her sets must be part of the character description. “Here the funeral is about describing the boy. We have this perfect boy, and we gather it’s his mother in the coffin, so in 20 seconds you understand a lot about him.”

She talks about working with child actors. “The casting agent auditioned 120 kids, and I auditioned 12 of those. It’s not just about casting a boy, it’s about casting a group of boys, and who might seem right as children of the adult actors.

“You have to be really honest with kid actors. In fact, I believe in honesty with grown-up actors as well. If you can be compassionate and honest at the same time, then the actor gives his best.” You will be able to see for yourself how Bier works with her performers, indeed how she works them into her unique fusion of social engagement and lyrical form, when Sony Pictures Classics opens In a Better World in February.

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