On the surface, In the Land of Blood and Honey seems like a vanity project of sorts for its maker, Angelina Jolie. After all, the actress/humanitarian/super-mom is one of the few figures in Hollywood who could strive to make a Bosnian War-set Romeo and Juliet with subtitles and actually get it done.
Yet the finished project suggests that we might have found a new director to watch. Jolie brings a sincere, serious vision to this ambitious enterprise. Crafted with a veteran’s skill, the film ably traverses a range of emotions, from the intimate warmth of bedside scenes to the cold, calculated brutality of war at its most horrific.
Shooting mostly in Hungary but working with an all-Bosnian cast, Jolie brings alive the terrible, destructive ethnic conflict that erupted between 1992 and 1995, after the former Yugoslavia split apart. Her narrative imparts the conflict’s heartaches through its focus on the forbidden, strife-ridden romance between Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Muslim artist, and Serbian policeman Danijel (Goran Kostic).
If you’re going to take on such a highly charged subject, you’ve got to go all the way with it. Jolie doesn’t shy from its challenges. She’s unafraid of difficult, uncompromising set pieces, offering an unflinching depiction of wanton criminality. Ajla is taken prisoner and subjected to considerable indignities and abuses along with her fellow Muslims. The violence is sudden and explosive, and Jolie always stresses its human cost. In one harrowing scene, for example, the Serbian officers use the Muslim prisoners as shields.
It’s a testament to the strength of Jolie’s craft that the taboo relationship at the picture’s core is interwoven into the wartime fabric without seeming like a superfluous cop out. Though Ajla and Danijel enjoy small moments of happiness — in bed, say, or when they visit an abandoned art gallery — the movie stresses the impossibility of their romance. Submerged within each scene shared by the main characters is the sense that they just can’t work. Matters of the heart can’t compete with the pull of familial and nationalist ties, or an atmosphere rife with wanton, casual hatred.
The actors affect a convincing bond while simultaneously subverting it. They’re genuine in their declarations of love for one another, and the opening scene — in which they seem blissfully happy dancing in a disco, until a bomb destroys it — makes it clear that at another time, in another place, things might have worked.
But their scenes together are defined by Ajla’s submissiveness and Danijel’s sadness, as if both characters are consumed by the realization that broader forces will drive them apart for good. The characters want to shut out the chaos surrounding them by escaping in each other’s arms, but they’re never able to do so. Even during the most tender of scenes, Jolie and her actors never let you forget the horrors looming outside the bedroom door. That — as much as any of the gritty, realistic depictions of violence — drives home the tragedy of war in this assured cinematic debut.
The Upside: Angelina Jolie shows that she is an accomplished director, with a keen visual eye and strong sense of thematically consistent storytelling.
The Downside: At times, the film feels a bit too familiar.
On the Side: The film is, as The Wall Street Journal notes, “a tough sell,” but it’s well worth your time, even if you’re rightfully skeptical about the whole thing.