Angelina Jolie‘s presence in “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” a film she directed but wisely chose not to star in, is both a gift and a curse. On the gift end, it’s a megawatt star bringing some serious attention to an incident in our recent history that has either been glossed over, underreported, barely acknowledged or forgotten about completely – the atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina that brought ethnic cleansing back to Europe for the first time since World War II. Conversely, there will be those who claim, since Jolie is fabulous and wealthy and drop-dead sexy (besides being a U.N. ambassador and outspoken human rights advocate), that she has no business portraying what is still an incredibly raw part of the very recent past. For the most part, though, Jolie tells a compelling, tragic story, framed inside of an unlikely romance, and pulls it off without pulling any punches.
The movie begins with a young Muslim woman named Aja (Zana Marjanovic), waving goodbye to her sister (and small baby niece). She’s going out on a first date with Danijel (Goran Kostic). We get glimpses of their first date, which seems incredibly romantic. While slow dancing on the dance floor, though, her head pressed against his chest, a bomb goes off, destroying the dance floor and killing and injuring many. They haven’t even kissed yet, and the couple has already shared a traumatic experience.
We then jump ahead several months, when Serbian troops enter Aja’s home, extracting her and her sister. It’s after we’re forced to watch a brutal rape by another officer, that it’s Aja’s turn for punishment. As she’s pushed down, a soldier emerges from the background. It’s Danijel. “I’ll take this one,” he says. But then he gets a look at the woman, and realizes it’s Aja and shoos her away. Thus our central conflict is born: a Serbian officer in love with one of his Muslim prisoners. If that doesn’t spell “doomed romance,” we don’t know what does.
Making matters even worse is that Danijel’s father is an unsympathetic general named Nebojsa (Rade Serbedzija), who feels historically indebted to carry out this ethnic cleansing, after years of perceived systematic abuse. And while his expository monologue is helpful, if you weren’t conscious of the atrocities that were happening at the time (either because you were too young or because, more likely, the conflict was outrageously underreported), the specifics, both historically and plot-wise, remain hazily out of focus.
But it’s really the love story that we’re asked to invest in, not the three-year-long campaign of cruelty, and Jolie does an admirable job of showing these two characters, who barely knew each other before the conflict, falling in love under the most unimaginable circumstances. Jolie brings her unblinking eye into the bedroom, with some refreshingly honest sex scenes. And you do begin to root for the characters to make it through, no matter how unlikely that seems.
As the story progresses, we also get glimpses of what was happening with the war, with President Clinton threatening action and Red Cross and UN envoys being deployed to the region. In one harrowing scene that amazingly doesn’t feel much like a Hollywood action movie, a Red Cross truck, attempting to administer aid, is blown apart by a Serbian rocket attack. In a flash you think about not only the lives that were lost in the truck but also how many potential lives could have been saved, too, had it been allowed to continue.
And for the most part Jolie brings a graceful touch while remaining totally raw and honest. At times the direction seems slack and lazy, like during a moment when she focuses on prisoners of war who have their wrists bound, ready for execution, and she cuts to a shot of Aja, in the middle of kinky sex with Danijel, her hands tied up. It’s enough to scream, “WE GET IT ANGIE,” at the screen (but you don’t of course, since the subject material is far too grim). Occasionally, too, her screenplay seems slack and saggy. Beyond the central romance, there’s not a lot going on, plot-wise. Aja attempts to escape, gets captured, repeat. The storyline following her friends and close family, who join a resistance movement, isn’t given enough attention and, when things ultimately turn south for them, the emotional weight isn’t truly there.
But, for the most part, “In the Land of Blood and Honey” is an admirable film. Jolie, as a first-time writer/director, shows a respectable amount of focus and artistry (Gabriel Yared‘s score and Dean Semler‘s dusty, battle scarred photography are outstanding), dramatizing the events with a romantic edge that never trivializes the actual history or turns anything into a melodrama. In a weird way, it’s reminiscent of “The Night Porter,” in its depiction of a deeply conflicted sexual relationship between two ideological opposites, except that “In the Land of Blood and Honey” is far less kinky and free of any traces of camp, and it’s a testament to the deeply nuanced and heartfelt performances by Marjanovic and Kostic that the relationship makes any sense at all. It’s their palpable connection, and the fact that both actors lived through that horrible time, that makes the movie live.
Jolie wisely chose these actors based on their nationality and ability, and it would have been very easy, given her clout, to call up her buddies and have them pretend to be Bosnians. Instead, she insisted on the real deal, and it has benefitted the movie immensely. And while the filmmaking is occasionally inelegant, Jolie will certainly earn points for going out on a limb and depicting the atrocities of this conflict honestly. It will probably be too brutal for most to stomach, but those that do will witness an assured screen debut from a woman who clearly has more than just on-screen talents. [B]