At one point in the Danish film In a Better World, a father named Anton brings his son and his son's friend along to confront a man who slapped him unprovoked. The man strikes Anton again. He turns the other cheek to convince the boys that he wins by choosing not to respond with violence. But the boys are skeptical, and the moment shows how difficult it is to comprehend the power of forgiveness.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, In a Better World tells a moving story of forgiveness and family love, but its ending undersells the complexity of its moral themes. The film (rated R for violence and language) is shot in both Denmark, where Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) lives, and Africa, where he goes to work as a doctor at a refugee camp. Both communities face bullies who attack the vulnerable. In Africa, a murderer is attacking pregnant women; in Denmark, the boys are plotting revenge against the oaf who slapped Anton.
Loss draws the two boys together: Christian's mother has died of cancer, and Elias (Markus Rygaard) is watching his father, Anton, and his mother undergo a separation. William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen gives a compelling performance as Christian, a determined boy with an adult bitterness set in his mouth. In Christian's friendship with the gentle Elias, we see in Christian the possibility of redemption. But Christian's hardness also has the power to sway Elias' sweetness, and therein lies the story's tension: Revenge can be persuasive.
The film ties everything up into an ending a little too neatly. But there are moments that give the film another layer, like when Anton must decide whether to protect the murderer or abandon him to suffer the vengeance of the people he's wronged.
The truth that we win by eschewing vengeance is a difficult truth to convey. In a Better World comes close.