Anyone skeptical of Angelina Jolie’s intentions with “In the Land of Blood and Honey” won’t have to wait long to believe they have ammunition. Opening with a shot of a woman painting her self-portrait, it’s as if Jolie is daring cynics to call what follows a vanity project when there is nothing glamorous about her feature directorial debut.
Rough around the edges, intentionally in function and less intentionally in form, “Blood and Honey” is an extension of arguably Jolie’s two most famous qualities — her humanitarian efforts and her Hollywood roots. The film is exotic because of its Bosnian setting, grizzled veteran character actor Rade Serbedzija likely being the only thing familiar to American audiences, yet dutifully trudges forward with one of the most old school of Tinseltown tropes by depicting the epic tragedy of war through the prism of a heartbreaking romance.
Circumstance clearly won’t be kind to Ajla and Danjiel, a pair of lovers whose slow dance at a local club is interrupted by a bomb blast that marks the end of peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early ‘90s. While they both live to dance another day, the next time they do, she is quivering in his arms nude when he is fully clothed, a not-so-subtle analogy for their relationship once he’s empowered as the son of a Serbian general to run riot over the Balkans, ridding the area of the Muslim Ajla’s friends and relatives. The only reason Ajla is spared is because he recognizes her when she arrives as a prisoner in his camp and is taken into his private quarters.
Whether she’s still a prisoner under his watch is something Ajla asks more than once throughout “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” but there is a freedom in Zana Marjanovic’s portrayal of the artist who can rarely escape the horrors of the war outside yet retains a defiant streak that no one around her can muster. In a conflict where everyone is defined by their regional or religious identity, Ajla appears to be the only one to really know who she is, making her conditions all the more confusing, and Marjanovic is able to carry off the role, and by extension the film, with a mix of anger and genuine curiosity about the way everything can change on a mass scale when nothing really has on an individual one. Her co-star Goran Kostic, who plays the stoic Danjiel, fares less well with the huge chunks of exposition Jolie’s script feeds him, but nonetheless gives an anguished performance that underlines the film’s greatest strength of refusing to let anyone off easy.
However, even with a team of Hollywood veterans behind the camera such as cinematographer Dean Semler (“Secretariat”) and composer Gabriel Yared (“Cold Mountain”) to make the inevitably tragic story palatable enough for audiences not to dismiss it offhand (something Jolie was keenly aware of, given the unforgivable ignorance of the war itself outside of Eastern Europe), “In the Land of Blood and Honey” suffers at times from the dichotomy. The juxtaposition of a passionate sex scene between Ajla and Danjiel accompanied by lilting music following Ajla’s embarrassment in a soldiers’ mess hall is a headscratcher and after the film bursts through its first act, it slows considerably once it starts hewing closer towards doomed love stories and war movies we’ve seen before, the chronology of events as told to us in the film’s subtitles moving at a faster pace than where the characters are at emotionally.
Jolie, of course, appeared in one of those hearts-and-helmets romances once as an actress in 2003’s “Beyond Borders,” a bloated throwback intended to evoke the spirit of David Lean, and in some ways, “In the Land of Blood and Honey” actually does so more, not through mimicry of Lean’s effortless grandeur, but with the grit of its conviction in addition to its considerable ambition. It’s a film that doesn’t only take on the folly of combat between once peaceful neighbors and the failure of the international community to intervene, but admirably the even less discussed marginalization of women. In fighting for equality on all fronts, Jolie makes a compelling case for a world where labels don’t matter, including those that would brand her as a celebrity rather than as a filmmaker. No argument here.
"In the Land of Blood and Honey" is now open in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the AMC Loews 19th Street East.