REVIEW: Angelina Jolie Makes a Bleak Bosnian War Romance with In the Land of Blood and Honey
In the Land of Blood and Honey isn't actually Angelina Jolie's first film as a director -- that distinction goes to A Place in Time, a little-seen 2007 documentary showcasing life in different locations around the globe at the same moment, shot with the help of some of her famous friends, including Djimon Hounsou and Anne Hathaway. But like that film, Jolie's narrative debut arrives surrounded by a halo of good intentions and the sense that celebrity is being used as the spoonful of sugar to make the didacticism go down.
Per the activist and star's own statement in the press notes, with this new feature she "wanted to make a film that would express, in an artistic way, [her] frustrations with the international community's failure to intervene in conflicts in a timely and effective manner." The conflict on-screen is the Bosnian War of the '90s, which puts new lovers Ajla (Zana Marjanović) and Danijel (Goran Kostić) on opposite sides of a clash that left 100,000 dead and led to accusations of genocide.
Despite those austere intentions, In the Land of Blood and Honey is gratifyingly short on lectures and, interestingly, on history lessons. The drama, which was also written by Jolie, is set very specifically during the Bosnian War without delving deeply into the complications of the reasons for the bloodshed. Ajla is a Bosnian Muslim, an aspiring painter who lives with her sister; Danijel is a Bosnian Serb, a policeman whose family has a tradition of going into law enforcement. But neither is a fervent believer in the war, at least not in the beginning. They're just shuffled off into the parts already assigned to them, Danijel taking a place as a commander in the Serbian army under his father, General Nebojsa Vukojevich (Rade Šerbedžija, who often plays Eastern European baddies in Hollywood fare), Ajla forced into a detention center with other women who are made to wait on the Serb troops. Upon their arrival, one of the soldiers pulls a woman to the front of the group and rapes her, just to make a point, her fellow prisoners looking away as she weeps, her face shoved into the table.
It's here that Danijel and Ajla are reunited and the most compelling part of In the Land of Blood and Honey unfolds, a squirmy, dark romance in which Danijel is at once Ajla's wooer, protector and persecutor. He tries to shield her from the abuses of the other soldiers without appearing as if he's too attached to a Muslim woman in their eyes, and he attempts to convince her he's not like the others when he goes out on campaigns to kill her fellow Bosniaks. "One of your Muslim friends was in my scope, and I'm thinking of you," he tells her after choosing not to shoot a man and his child on a bridge earlier that day, and it's unclear whether he wants gratitude or an apology. Marjanović and Kostić have a potent on-screen chemistry together, when taken with the power dynamics at play, and they present an uncomfortable developing relationship that you can't turn away from -- when we first see it consummated, it's immediately after another soldier has stepped on Ajla's hand to punish her for dropping a dish, with Danijel unable to intervene on her behalf. In their desperate coupling it's clear that Ajla has been reminded of how she needs him on her side as much as she might actually want him there.
And yet, given an opportunity to escape, Alja stays. As a director, Jolie sometimes jumbles her visual construction (a firefight late in the film is difficult to follow). But she's unfailingly generous with her leads, who are both charismatic and watchable -- Kostić is handsome but sinister, while Marjanović's beauty is centered around her wise, steady gaze. Still, she leaves so much unsaid that we often have no idea what's going on in the heads of the characters. As their The Night Porter-esque relationship takes new turns and encounters growing complications -- Danijel is assigned elsewhere for a while, and things get worse for Alja at the compound until she runs away, though later Danijel has her brought back -- it becomes less and less clear, in ways that don't all seem intentional, what either is thinking and how sincere each is in the faux domesticity they've carved out for themselves in an ever-more devastated landscape. "Am I your prisoner?" she asks him once, and he responds, astoundingly, "You're a prisoner only if you don't want to be here."
Between engagements with Alja and Danijel the film provides images of the awfulness of the war -- the murder of a baby, the use of women as human shields, a mass grave -- as well as its surreal quality, as one man reflects that 40 minutes away in Italy tourists are sitting out in the sun. These are haunting scenes, but along with the growing muddiness of our understanding of our two leads they seem disconnected. If In the Land of Blood and Honey aims to be a film about the madness of war, it's not clear whose madness it is, as war is depicted as descending out of the sky like a contagion. It fits with Jolie's insistence that there should have been early outside intervention in the conflict, but also seems too facile an explanation for the atrocities committed. As the love between Danijel and Alja curdles in an impossible environment, we mourn for them but don't feel we understand them.
Follow Alison Willmore on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.