"To err is human, to forgive divine."
These words, written by Alexander Pope 300 years ago, clearly still resonate with Danish director Susanne Bier, whose Oscar-winning film In a Better World explores how difficult it is to sustain basic human goodness in a malevolent world.
The 50-year-old became fixated on exploring this theme after she and her scriptwriting collaborator, Anders Thomas Jensen, wrote scenes about kids being interrogated by the police. "It got us thinking about the fragileness of the Danish ideal, about how difficult it can be to be a decent human being, particularly in our time," Bier explains. "Both of us were really fascinated by this benevolence we see in a lot of people, including in our part of the world, who really want to do the right thing, but have real issues leading their lives in a moral way."
In a Better World, which won this year's Academy Award for foreign-language film, follows a doctor, an intrinsically good man named Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), who encounters barbaric evil in a warlord in Sudan while working at a refugee camp. On his return home to his idyllic Danish village, he finds himself surrounded by similar, just less insidious, evil in the people he meets on the streets - and within his own family circle.
On the phone from Copenhagen, where she is based, Bier says her decision to juxtapose those two disparate - but jarringly similar - locales in a morality tale gone awry was deliberate. She wanted to show how people, regardless of their socio-economic status, often choose revenge over forgiveness when pushed to the end of their rope.
" In a Better World basically asks whether our own 'advanced' culture is the model for a better world or whether the same disarray [is] found in the lawlessness lurking beneath the surface of our own civilization," says the director, who shot her feature in Kenya and Copenhagen in 2009. "Are we immune to chaos, or obliviously teetering on the verge of disorder? This is not a political film. This is about deep moral choices, ethics and basic human values."
At one point in the film, Anton is repeatedly slapped by a belligerent mechanic in front of his children, but he refuses to strike back. Still, despite the obvious "turn the other cheek" biblical reference, Bier insists that this movie is not "a religious film."
"I think most people by nature are instinctively ready to defend themselves. And the danger of being forced to do so is always there. The movie clearly suggests forgiveness and compassion are much better and, possibly, a much more efficient way of dealing with life or society. But it's not black and white. It doesn't say you can forgive anything. It just says we tend to believe more in the other way of doing things."
This isn't the first time that Bier, a prolific filmmaker, has grappled with complex social issues. In 2002's Open Hearts, a newly engaged couple with a charmed life see their future implode after a car accident. Her 2004 film Brothers - an audience award winner at Sundance - explores the First World's relationship with the Third after a veteran soldier endures a brutal captivity that almost destroys him, as well as his family. And in 2006, Bier directed and co-wrote (again with Jensen) the Academy Award-nominated After the Wedding, which waded back into the great cultural divide between the developed and developing world (this time pairing India and Denmark) in a drama about family secrets and the havoc that ensues when the truth comes out.
All of this might make Bier seem like an art-house filmmaker to viewers in North America. She studied art and architecture at Jerusalem University before graduating from the National Film School of Denmark. In her home country, though, she is widely regarded as a commercial hit-maker (her first box-office success in Denmark was the romantic comedy The One and Only, in 1999).
And that bifurcated reputation rankles Bier. "I'm just so fed up with that European arrogance to what commercial is," she says, her voice rising as her temper flares.
"Basically, there's a European arrogance to watch anything which actually addresses an audience. I make movies because I honestly believe I have stories to tell which might be of interest to an audience. So it's not about commercialism, it's about communicating. To think a film is only valid and refined if you don't reach an audience is absolutely daft, very arrogant and stupid."
That off her chest, Bier switches gears and says that the Oscar win for In a Better World will, hopefully, get the Euro snobs off her back - at least for a while.
"Winning an Oscar is a big deal for a country like Denmark. We're a country of five million people, almost the same amount of people who live in Manhattan, so it's a big deal to be able to generate something which apparently has such strong universal impact," she says, her happy voice back.
It won't hurt her career, either. "Even if I hadn't won, I'd still be making the kind of movies that I want to do, but hopefully this will make it a little bit easier to do," Bier says.
But she adds with a laugh, "I'm going to work really hard to avoid the curse of wanting to make a movie that is going to win another Oscar."
Her next film is a frothy romantic comedy. Yes, with commercial potential.
"Let's see if I succeed in that."
In a Better World opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday.
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