First the faint praise. In the Land of Blood and Honey, a.k.a. the writing and directing debut of one Angelina Jolie, is nothing if not ambitious. The thematic canvas is broad, a sweeping attempt to dramatize the Bosnian conflict on multiple fronts – the historical roots, the ethnic cleansing, the sexual violence, the war crimes, the ineffectuality of the West, the need for reconciliation.
To that large end, her direction is competent yet the script is terribly schematic, the near-allegorical sort where ideas give birth to characters and not the other way around.
Consequently, although Jolie’s good intentions are easy to admire, those characters are hard to believe, and the bloody narrative has an oddly bloodless effect. But that’s not surprising – not when a film is so eager to double as a lecture.
The start is peaceful. It’s 1992, and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) is a Bosnian Muslim living in a low-rise apartment. She shares the space with her sister, Lejla, the mother of a baby girl, and spends her days as a portrait painter. Nights are devoted to clubbing and a dalliance with her Serbian boyfriend Danijel (Goran Kostic). Indeed, it’s in that very club that the bomb explodes – the war has begun.
Cut to four months later, when armed soldiers force the tenants out of the apartment and select the prettiest women for transport to a field headquarters, where they’re systematically raped. Ajla is about to meet the same fate, when the officer in charge intervenes – yes, it just happens to be Danijel, in uniform now and serving under the command of a hard-ass general, who just happens to be his father. Already, the schematic design is troublingly evident.
What follows is, among other things, a symbol-laden tale of star-crossed love. When not out on patrol with his gun-sights focused, Danijel protects Ajla, who accepts his sanctuary, and furtively they consummate their passion. Of course, he has divided loyalties – a reluctant recruit literally in bed with the enemy (“I never wanted to be part of this war”), and a dutiful son sworn to obey his father (“Do your job. Make me proud”). Obviously, she’s no less torn, even as the country they share is torn apart. The symbols clank.
Meanwhile, as if to remind us of internecine warfare’s brutal realities, Jolie returns to the apartment complex and the ultimate barbarity. Lejla howls in grief, and her grief quickly becomes politicized: She joins a cadre of Muslims engaged in armed counter-attacks. But the script gives her plight short shrift and soon revisits the Ajla/Danijel relationship, where the general, having gotten wind of his son’s affair, is quick-marched himself into heavily symbolic territory. He’s the embodiment of historic enmities, the bellicose voice of the past that ravages the present and denies hope for the future.
Don’t expect any of this to conclude happily, although the climax is surprising if only in its sheer improbability. But give Jolie some credit. She occasionally generates suspense and, intermittently at least, creates an awful empathy through the tableaus of violence and abuse. Her use of the Bosnian language is wise (this is the subtitled version), and her casting of local actors is sensitive. Alas, she’s less sensitive in making them play walking/talking metaphors.
Speaking of which, I did enjoy the moment when Art lectures War and Politics. During a quiet interlude in an abandoned gallery, Ajla points up at a canvas on the wall and preaches on the aesthetics, and ethics, of painting: “It’s about the empty spaces. It’s the choice not to do something.” Jolie was smart enough to write that sermon, but not to heed it. Her picture is so glutted with spelled-out meaning that there’s no space to breathe – what tries too hard to be informing ends by suffocating.
In the Land of Blood and Honey
- Directed and written by Angelina Jolie
- Starring Zana Marjanovic and Goran Kostic
- Classification: NA
- 2.5 stars