In the Land of Blood and Honey
Written & Directed: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Zana Marjanovic, Goran Kostic, Rade Serbedzija
Review: 2.5 stars (of five)
Angelina Jolie writes and directs her first feature, and displays considerable talent at both behind-the-camera jobs, though her debut effort is far from perfect. In this fictional chronicle of the Bosnian war, Jolie has two goals–to tell a story about a man and a woman caught in horror, and to give the audience a visceral sense of that genocidal war.
At the first task, she excels. The casual brutality fueled by ethnic resentments is jarring. The film starts on the eve of war, though we have no more sense of that than the characters, and the arrival of violence is sudden. Muslim women, including our main character, Ajla, are rounded up and taken to rape camps, and the cruelty visited on them seems trivial, routine, in the manner of the Serb soldiers who inflict it. Elsewhere, simply crossing a Sarajevo street in search of food or medicine is harrowing, as Serb snipers wait day after day to pick off any Bosnian desperate enough to set foot outdoors. Jolie’s work in this regard is nothing short of fantastic.
Her second mission is less successful. Before the explosive start of war, we see Ajla and Danijel on what appears to be a first date. In the heat of war, Danijel–son of a Serbian general–turns out to be the commander of the rape camp. He offers Ajla protection. As their illicit relationship progresses, somehow enduring the entire length of the multiyear war, the story becomes less and less believable. While the characters seem complex and less linear than most movie creations, we’re never given enough sense of their interior lives to truly understand them. And when we can’t understand their motivations and behaviors, the weaknesses in the plot become all the harder to bear.
It’s admirable that Jolie does not overwrite the characters, and keeps her excellent cast restrained, but in her quest to make the audience engage rather than just observe, she sometimes gives us too little to work with. Ajla and Danijel hardly know each other as the war starts, and they don’t seem to open up to each other as their strange relationship progresses. Early on, we get the sense that Danijel, who is repelled by the cruelty of war, seeks a kind of absolution through Ajla. But as his unstable and underdeveloped character swings from one mood to another, it’s hard to understand and care about him. Ajla, meanwhile, is simply withdrawn–understandable for a woman in her circumstances, but not enough to allow an audience to connect.
Yet these flaws are no fault of the actors, who go a long way toward mitigating them. The cast is one of the reasons to watch the film despite its failings. Jolie knows better than anyone how life off-camera affects how a film or its stars are received, and there’s something of a stunt in casting Bosnian Muslims and Serbs to play their respective countrymen, reenacting a war they all lived through. But looking past that, we see a cast that simply delivers terrific performances, with skill and subtlety in ideal service to the script.
Besides the cast and the well-crafted environment in which her flawed story lives, there is Jolie’s direction. Unsurprisingly, she’s very focused on her actors’ performances. She also has a very artistic visual sense, frame after frame looking like a well-composed photograph rather than a real-world moment. This often works against her story (though beauty in the banal horror of war is probably an intentional part of her intent), but it still shows Jolie to be an interesting freshman director likely to graduate to better things.
Critics have not been kind to this film, but I was glad to have seen it. Some would say the flaws of the story, which really intensify as we approach the final shots, kill the film’s other merits. But there are many flawed films that are worth seeing, and I thought this was one of them, because the positives outweighed the negatives to deliver an interesting film with worthy artistic and social aims.