One of the most striking things about Angelina Jolie’s powerful Bosnia war drama “In The Land Of Blood And Honey” are the two beautiful faces of Ajla (Zana Marjanović) and Danijel (Goran Kostić), luminous amidst the horrors of the conflict that ravaged Bosnia-Herzegovina and Yugoslavia. Their faces are lit up with the language, feeling and look of love. The faces will become more tense, strained and indelible by film’s end. (“In The Land Of Blood And Honey” opened last Friday in San Francisco at the Century 9 Centre Cinemas.)
As the film’s title suggests, love is blissful but bittersweet, and Ms. Jolie sets her film (which she also wrote) against the bloody backdrop of the early 1990s conflict in the Balkans between Serbs and Croats, one which saw upwards of 50,000 women raped and 100,000 lives lost. Two million people were uprooted from their homes by force. Prior to the war Serbs, Croats and Muslims married each other without much fanfare or turmoil. Near the film’s start Ajla, a Bosnian Muslim, and Danijel, a Bosnian Serb, dance and are rudely interrupted. Soon their relationship grows strained, and as the Serb-initiated war breaks out against Muslims, so does the tension between Ajla and Danijel.
Danijel serves as the captain of his Serb soldier unit, who rape and murder with impunity. His father Nebosja (Rade Šerbedžija), a Serb General, bemoans the lack of courage of some of his people while saluting the past, where things, he declares, are a lot tougher than now. Danijel safeguards Ajla against his more zealous and vicious soldiers but the terrain that holds them together becomes quicksand.
For years Ms. Jolie, a humanitarian, has passionately advocated on behalf of women raped and families traumatized and displaced during the Bosnian War, and has long believed that their stories and justice against the perpetrators of the war crimes committed against them needs to be told and effectuated. In this, her debut feature film directing effort, Ms. Jolie’s admirable passion is conveyed in some scenes but overall “In The Land Of Blood And Honey” lacks narrative punch and looks familiar with flat, often rhetorical dialogue.
“In The Land Of Blood And Honey” can be best described as a Rorschach ink blot. What I saw was both murky and clear, but in the end, shattering and empty. The more you look, the less you see — just like the movie’s poster, which after more than a dozen looks I finally detected what I was seeing. Ms. Jolie’s film leaves most everybody on both sides of the Bosnian conflict on a cardboard level, save for the film’s chief protagonists. Mr. Kostić is good as the unraveling Danijel, a man who knows the war is wrong but his reality is rooted in tradition and the warped perspective war brings. “In The Land Of Blood And Honey” has the kind of tense atmosphere reminiscent of “Schindler’s List”, but without that film’s unrelenting menace.
This grim, intense film is a remarkably lukewarm exercise despite sudden, jolting, terrifying moments that leave you gasping. At a point however, “In The Land Of Blood And Honey” illuminates little beyond its shocking, harrowing spectacle. Aside from one or two instances we never, on a subjective level at least, get an appreciable sense of the internal terror Ajla feels on a daily basis during the conflict. The story we see is more an objective one about war and its casualties than about a woman torn by love and circumstance. Ms. Jolie herself seems torn between which story to make a priority. Nevertheless, one cannot bemoan any lack of authenticity or commitment from the director: Ms. Jolie clearly wants our attention, and she certainly gets it. War is painful, and there are no heroes or winners. This message, however, is hammered home at the expense of almost everything else, including a strong underlying story between Ajla and Danijel.
Even with its undeniable, hard-hitting realism, “In The Land Of Blood And Honey” is strangely surface in its examination of the dilemmas facing key characters, and the drama surrounding them isn’t consistently strong. Relationships are briefly outlined; that of father and son; of sister and sister; of comrade and comrade, etc., but these are developed only as far as outrage and violent acts will take them. There’s little use for the interactions or relationship constructs after blood has marred them. Clichés often take hold, including in the film’s penultimate scene, one which is both obvious and unnecessary. The story shifts to an offending character where I wasn’t sure that it should have, especially for the sake of narrative consistency. I inevitably asked myself, “whose story am I watching?” Alja’s? Danijel’s? Bosnia’s? That of the women who are raped, tortured and humiliated? The answer isn’t easy to come by.
A recent film that is constantly stark and unsentimental and takes place in Bosnia in the same early 1990s time period is Larysa Kondracki’s debut-directed film “The Whistleblower” (2011), based on the true story of a UN peacekeeper who has to investigate allegations of UN peacekeeper rape, murder and, prostitution of Serbian women refugees of the Bosnian conflict. It’s a stronger film about similar issues and circumstances. I wish Ms. Jolie had spent even more time on her script and fleshed out the characters more, and the dramatic arcs they would have been better served by.
I believe Ms. Jolie could have made the film infinitely more disturbing than it is — not as a gratuitous act but as a potent reminder that people of Bosnia-Herzegovina and surrounding areas are still suffering from this war, 20 years later. (To be fair, the film’s end credits remind us to a large extent.) Still, I wish “In The Land Of Blood And Honey” did more, and conveyed more of the horrors. Many in America, and much of the world for that matter, have forgotten them. I remember watching some extremely graphic footage on CNN back in 1994, during the heart of this awful conflict. I recoiled and cringed as I heard the stories being told about the brutalities against women and families torn asunder.
I blasphemed once during Ms. Jolie’s film but feel guilty for not doing so more often.
Sometimes “In The Land Of Blood And Honey” plays like a documentary, other times it just plays. One of the great things about the film though, is Gabriel Yared’s wonderfully touching and emotive score, and one of the numbers, “The Loss”, is of one-of-a-kind brilliance (even if part of it evokes composer Maurice Jarre’s work.) “The Loss” articulates a lot more than the film often does.
A turgid and uneven drama despite good work from Ms. Marjanović (who mildly resembles Charlotte Gainsbourg), Ms. Jolie’s cinematic artistry and acumen is strongest when choreographing love scenes in an elegant, tender and celestial manner (shot by Dean Semler), but not always when filming sudden violence later on, with repetitive forays of explosions into the camera. What is on the screen is a conventional war drama with episodes of lovemaking as interludes. The dramatic center of the film, the love story, is positioned for a critical denouement that arrives unexpectedly, and like much of the occasionally stirring episodes, all too suddenly.
Populated by a cast of highly talented Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Muslim actors, Ms. Jolie gets the best work from them. They definitely don’t disappoint, even if this otherwise hollow drama does.
Ms. Marjanović was born in Sarajevo in 1983 about ten years before the Bosnian war. As I watched her I mouthed the words, “she’s so beautiful.” As Ajla, an artist, she is mournful, brave and wracked with the sense of foreboding and longing that bonds her to Danijel. Ms. Jolie ties her film to art and artful flourishes and the beautiful moments between Alja and Daniel early on are marvelous. Art makes us remember, makes us capture the moments in life, time or in the abstract, moments that stir us to recognition, reaction, understanding, and more. In one scene Ajla explores an art gallery. Some familiar faces are on display, and there’s beauty on many of the canvasses we see. When war intervenes however, such canvasses can be pathetically spare and devastating. Throughout, Ms. Jolie never lets us forget that.
With: Vanesa Glodio, Nikola Djurićko, Branko Djurić, Fedja Stukan, Alma Terzić, Jelena Jovanova, Ermin Bravo, Boris Ler, Jasna Orlena Bery, Aleksandar Djurica, Džana Pinjo.
–At the Century 9 in San Francisco.
“In The Land Of Blood And Honey” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for war violence and atrocities including rape, sexuality, nudity and language. The film is in the Slavic languages with English subtitles. The film’s running time is two hours and seven minutes.
Original review of this film here
For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter.
For a list of Omar’s modenook.com stories and film reviews, click here. He is a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and also a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
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