Leave it to Angelina Jolie to take the path of greatest resistance. Actors trying their hand at film making is a regular occurrence, however most start off with something easy. A light, forgettable comedy set in their hometowns and usually starring their close friends. Not Jolie, a movie star in the truest sense of the word with the heart of a humanitarian. Jolie has dipped her toes into mixing her career with her global relief efforts before. Remember 2003’s critically panned Beyond Borders? This is her debut serving as a writer and director, and she’s done anything but start small. In the Land of Blood and Honey is an intricate, beautifully shot romance set amidst the horror of the Bosnian War. Although her inexperience as a writer prevents it from being a total success, Jolie’s obvious passion and the intense relationship at the story’s core make this a powerful film any veteran director would be proud of.
The film starts casually, with a brief sequence telling us that the Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats have been living in harmony for years. With the dissolution of Yugoslavia, there was little interest by Serbs to be run by a primarily Muslim government. In 1992, Bosnia literally exploded into all out war, with the ethnic cleansing and mass rape of thousands, possibly millions of innocent Muslims mostly at the hands of the Serbs.
Ajla, a Muslim woman, (Zana Marjanovic) and Danijel, a Serbian, (Goran Kostic) are going out on a date at a busy night club. The two seem completely at ease with one another. She agonized beforehand on what to wear, hurried out of the house by her sister, Lejla (Vanesa Glodjo), a single mother she shares a tiny apartment with. As Ajla and Danijel are dancing the night away, a bomb suddenly rips the club apart. Happy, carefree moments such as this will be few and far between from here on out.
Weeks pass, and in that time the Serbs begin rounding up every Muslim in the region. Ajla’s apartment is quickly seized. As terrible as it may sound, the men are the lucky ones, their fate meted out quickly at the end of a gun barrel. The women have a much more terrible, prolonged doom ahead of them, as most are taken captive, raped repeatedly, and treated like something less than human. Ajla’s beauty quickly becomes a detriment, as she’s separated from her sister and sent off to a camp. Just as she’s about to be publicly raped, she’s saved by Danijel, who just so happens to be one the Serbian military’s top brass.
From there, it’s all Danijel can do to protect her, but to do so while showing any genuine affection would bring his downfall. He claims her as his property, with no other man allowed to touch her, and while this mostly protects her from physical damage, she is open bare to the emotional and psychological toll of the atrocities committed around her every day.
Jolie took a lot of heat from Bosnian War survivors for even daring to have a romantic relationship between a Serbian soldier and a Muslim woman, but those people must not have even seen the movie. One of the story’s great strengths, and this is a credit to Jolie directly, is the internal conflict raging between the two lovers. Danijel is a reluctant soldier who sees the error of his side’s stance against the Muslims, but he’s compelled by being the son of a powerful general and war hero(Rade Serbedzija), who is convinced that wholesale slaughter is necessary. If he’s willing to kill Muslims just to gain his father’s acceptance, how can he ever allow himself to love a Muslim woman? For Ajla, what began as terrible fear quickly gives way to passion, but can she truly love a man who engages in the genocide of her people? Is she in love, or just doing what she has to do to survive? The true feelings they possess remain shrouded in mystery throughout, and Jolie shows a deft touch keeping up the suspense.
The true courage of Jolie’s decision to cover this material would mean nothing if the film was simple and sugar coated, but that is never an issue. Never backing away from the horrors and tragedies of the war, it’s hard to shake the obvious comparisons to WWII and the Nazis. In fact, parts of it bear a striking resemblance to The Pianist. Jolie takes on the similarities head on, and doesn’t shy away from shaming the global peace keeping community for their inaction while the atrocities were being committed and often captured on film. Yep, that includes us.
Pacing becomes an issue near the conclusion, and it feels like maybe 20 minutes could have been chopped from the running time, but all of the characters are fully realized, flesh and blood people dealing with a complex series of emotions. If there’s an issue, it’s that we never really get into the reasons for the conflict, the meat of why there is so much hatred between the sides.Jolie shows a comfortable hand even with the complicated battle sequences, troublesome even for more experienced film makers. A lot of that credit must go to her cinematographer, Dean Semler, but this is without a doubt Jolie’s show and is deserving of much of the praise.
This is war, and as such don’t expect much in the way of happy endings. In fact, it’s pretty bleak throughout, so don’t make this your first date movie.
A UN Good Will ambassador for years, Jolie isn’t likely to stop or even slow down her humanitarian efforts. Now that she’s gotten her feet wet, there’s no doubt we’ll be seeing more movies like this from her, which is something we should all be very excited about.