Jolie takes charge in directing debut
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan 13, 2012
Angelina Jolie makes an impressive writing and directing debut with "In the Land of Blood and Honey," an ambitious if not entirely fully realized drama about the 1990s war in the former Yugoslavia.
Skeptics pooh-poohing the idea of the world's most glamorous star dealing with such serious subject matter will be disappointed that the picture is far more somber, rigorous and humane than they could have expected. Unfolding as a taut military thriller, the film possesses surprising touches of realism. As a chronicle of senseless cruelty, suffering and the stark indifference of a paralyzed international community, Jolie's earnest depiction of Serbian atrocities against Bosnian Muslims feels like equal parts rebuke and cautionary cri de coeur.
At the center of the madness, and guiding viewers through a confusing jumble of tribal animosities, are a Bosnian artist named Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and a reluctant Serbian soldier named Danijel (Goran Kostic) who meet in a bar in 1992, just before the war breaks out, and then later cross paths in a Serbian prison. Terrifically attractive performers, Marjanovic and Kostic are utterly believable in their roles, both as individuals and as symbols of the pluralistic ideals that Jolie describes in the film's opening epigram, which states that Bosnians and Serbs once lived in harmony.
Whether those ideals can survive forms the philosophical fulcrum of "In the Land of Blood and Honey," especially after the rape, sexual humiliation and mass killings that Jolie portrays with unblinking frankness. (Jolie is just as hard on the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development, depicting both institutions as bumbling ineffectually while the Balkans burned.) At times, the story of the war and the fictional romance bump up against each other awkwardly: After Danijel sees Ajla being abused in a prison cafeteria, Jolie cuts to a tender love scene between the two, and later he ties her to a bed with a belt, leaving viewers unsure of precisely what Jolie is trying to convey.
The filmmaker's aims are far less ambiguous when "In the Land of Blood and Honey" - which, to Jolie's credit, is presented entirely in the Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian dialects rather than in the more commercially viable English - takes a turn for the schematic and, finally, luridly melodramatic. But for all the story's contrivances, Jolie still has managed to plunge filmgoers into the terror, heartbreak and confusion - literal and moral - of a war that remains unresolved.
"In the Land of Blood and Honey" exists in a time and place of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions: love and hate, power and powerlessness, oppression and victimization. If viewers are left feeling just as impotent as many of the characters, that may be precisely what Jolie intended for a film that asks nothing more of its audience than to bear witness.
Contains war violence and atrocities, including rape, sexuality, nudity and profanity. In Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian with English subtitles.