When learning that Angelina Jolie's first movie as a writer and director was set during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, I foolished assumed that capturing the breadth and horror of the war would be the harder task. The war -- really a genocide perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs against Muslims in the free-for-all following the break-up of Communist Yugoslavia -- was one that seemed murky to Americans at the time.
Deliberately so, perhaps, as the complexity became a tacit justification for the Western world not intervening until an estimated 50,000 people were killed. "We don't have a dog in this fight," one UN official is quoted as saying in the film.
But Jolie has spent a lot of time on the ground in Bosnia, and "In the Land of Blood and Honey" seethes with passion and authenticity. Shot in Bosnia and using native actors, the film captures the terror and confusion of the victims, the self-righteous cruelty of the perpetrators, and the futility of the whole struggle. In showing the war scenes, Jolie doesn't go for large-scale action shots, mostly keeping the camera up close to people's faces, fitting for a movie that's about neighbors pitted against neighbors.
Where the film fails, surprisingly, is the simple character drama at the center of all the turmoil. Jolie wants to tell a tragic love story amid the ruins, between a Serb and a Muslim, but she can never get a bead on who these two people are or how they feel about each other.
The film opens in early 1992, with Danijel (Goran Kostic ) a Serbian cop, and Ajle (Zana Marjanovic), a Muslim artist on a date back in a time when such a thing was possible. They're not lovers, yet, but they're dancing, they're laughing -- and then a bomb rips through the disco. They emerge physically unharmed, but their blossoming chance at love is dead.
Months later, Ajle is among a group of Muslim women rounded up and brought to a Serbian prison to be used as sex slaves for the soldiers there. (One of the things Jolie is determined to show is how women are a frequent target, and rape a frequent weapon, in genocide.) Danijel happens to run the camp, sees Ajle among the prisoners, and tries to save her from his men.
This is a very tricky relationship to pull off on-screen -- they are captor and captive, ultimately, but vestiges of their old feelings remain, especially for Danijel, who follows orders but remains conflicted about the war. "You're young," growls his father (Rade Serbedzija), for whom decades-old Muslim-on-Serb atrocities are still fresh. "You don't care about the past."
But the result is that the tone of Danijel and Ajle's scenes together keeps shifting. In one scene, Danijel is idling pointing a rifle at a terrified Ajle's head as he describes being on sniper patrol. But the very next time they meet on screen, they display the warmth of old friends.
If we can't figure out the foundation of their relationship, then it doesn't really matter to us as the strain of the conflict begins to weigh on it, and we wonder if one will betray the other. Both performances are good -- Marjanovic has a magnetic stillness on-camera that's particularly fascinating -- but their characterizations are inconsistent.
I think Jolie was more interested in using "Blood and Honey" to raise awareness about the Bosnian conflict, remind the Western world of its inactivity at the time, and admonish it not to stay on the sidelines again. Mission accomplished
But movies are stories first and foremost, and the story at the center of the real-world horror in "Blood and Honey" just doesn't work.
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