also about peace-loving people trying to deal with the violence all around them, which
almost everyone can identify with.
Anton (Michael Persbrandt) is a Swedish physician living in Denmark who commutes
to Africa to help needy villagers who have no doctor. He’s frustrated by the horrible
violence he witnesses there: pregnant women with their bellies slashed open because
of some sectarian strife that’s difficult to reconcile with the happy faces of the
children who run after his truck shouting in singsong unison, “How are you? How are
Anton’s son Elias, unmercifully bullied by the bigger boys at school, befriends the
new kid, the quiet one. But the new boy, Christian, has problems of his own. His
mom has died of cancer, and he still resents the way his dad told him that she was
going to get better. He’s also dealing with the even darker aspects of terminal illness:
his mom in so much pain that she was wishing she would die, and his father so weary
of constantly caring for her that he found himself wishing the same thing. How could
the boy not be confused and angry? Christian’s dad emotionally retreats, and the boy
stands up to the school bully for his new friend’s sake. But then he experiences the
darker side of succumbing to the rage: It gives him a feeling of power.
Anton, desperate to show the boys that violence is not the answer, allows himself to
be physically assaulted by a man on the playground, who is angered because Anton
had tried to stop a quarrel and physically restrained his son. But the nonviolent
teaching moment backfires. The boys think Anton is just a wuss.
Meanwhile, Anton’s marriage is falling apart. We aren’t told why he keeps
apologizing to his estranged wife, but in a way, it doesn’t matter. She isn’t having
any of his remorse.
Much to Anton’s chagrin, things start escalating both in Africa and in Denmark,
his two homes. In Africa, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain neutral, as
the warlord who’s doing all the dismembering shows up at the clinic for medical
treatment. And back in Denmark, the boys have gotten themselves into some serious
trouble, and Anton must decide how he is going to deal with the consequences of their
wrong choices—while struggling with how to forgive the sin but still love the sinner.
Despite the subtitles and the repeated change of venue, this film manages an internal
cohesion that pulls the viewer through the moral quagmire. It’s a remarkable portrait
of well-meaning people dealing not only with the inevitable grey areas but with the
blackness that threatens to engulf everyone. No wonder it won the Oscar and the
Golden Globe for best foreign language film. It connects with us all.
Ronald P. Salfen is co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church, Greenville, Texas.