The Arbiter : Right or wrong?

On the surface, the second film by Estonian director Kadri Kõusaar (whose debut feature, Magnus, screened as part of Un Certain Regard at the 2007 Cannes Festival) looks to be a rather ordinary thriller. But on closer inspection, The Arbiter (which was shot chiefly in the UK, with the dialogue spoken in English) is a flawed but often intriguing and fascinating examination of morality and accountability.

Lee Ingleby plays John, an academic whose cosy life is shattered when his fiancée decides to have an abortion and leave him. He decides to go on a road trip with his daughter Ronja, for whom he provided donor sperm, in order to get away. But as the trip develops, it soon becomes apparent that John is eager to share a darker side of his life with Ronja (Lina Leandersson). A proponent of Social Darwinism, John believes the weak, the old and the “morally wrong” are a drain on society. And he is prepared to help them meet their ends. As Ronja becomes involved in a cycle of killing, the morality of which is confusing and strange to her young mind, John increasingly becomes sure of his position as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong.

Kõusaar remains a controversial filmmaker in her native Estonia, and this title is indicative of her willingness to explore complex issues. While the backbone of the film is standard genre fare, there’s clearly a lot going on here as the movie tries to get to grips with a number of complex and thorny issues. Interestingly, the nature of John’s “arbitration” is never wholly condemned as he goes from passing judgement on a slimy paedophile to doing the same on a coachload of infirm and innocent OAPs, and the film tries to show how easy it is to slip into a mode of moral certitude. Aesthetically, Kõusaar has a fine eye for creating some arresting sequences, including a lovely moment when John invades a nightclub to replace the banging techno music and a subsequent, surreal club scene dripping with religious symbolism.

If you approach this as a genre piece, then The Arbiter will disappoint. But if you consider it as a piece of dark satire, then there’s a lot more to uncover and enjoy in the film.

Part of our Scandinavian Collection, The Arbiter is available from 23 November in Denmark, Norway, Italy, France, Great Britain, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands and Turkey.

01 December 2015, by Cineuropa