Romeo and Juliet-style romance struggles to survive in early-‘90s Bosnia in In the Land of Blood and Honey, the uneven writing/directing debut of Angelina Jolie. Taking place between 1991 and 1995, Jolie's fictional story concerns the unlikely and increasingly troubled amour shared by Ajla (Zana Marjanović), a Muslim painter, and Danijel (Goran Kostić), a Serbian police officer, whose joyous intro dancing in a nightclub is shattered by a catastrophic bomb blast. Their relationship, like that between Muslims and Serbs, is forever altered by this act of war, especially once Danijel becomes a captain under the command of his father Nebojsa (Rade Šerbedžija) in the Serbian army's genocidal campaign against Muslims, and Ajla—in one of innumerable oh-so-convenient developments—winds up a prisoner at his military camp. Their subsequent years-long affair while under these conditions, where rape and brutality against women is business as usual by most Serbian soldiers, is a thing of endless contrivances. Jolie's phony plotting and graphic depictions of sexual assault and murder are transparent attempts to bluntly convey the war's atrocities. Jolie's personal humanitarian reputation may entice some to seek out this subtitled drama (in which the actress herself doesn't appear), but box office potential for this grim, far-fetched work seems miniscule.
If there's a redeeming quality to In the Land of Blood and Honey's treatment of its subject matter it's that, unlike weak-kneed films such as Hotel Rwanda, it refuses to shy away from the true, vile reality of the Bosnian war. Images of men mowed down on the streets, groups of innocents executed in front of mass graves and women raped in the company of their fellow captives all prove Jolie's admirable commitment to directly addressing the Serbians' heinous actions. After the umpteenth graphic horror, however, the effect of Jolie's approach begins to not just wear thin, but resemble an affected pose, with the filmmaker seeming too intent on making sure viewers' noses are rubbed in the bloody muck. It doesn't help that, as a director, Jolie exhibits scant visual flair that might evocatively enhance her nastier incidents. Moreover, her blunt handling of violence extends to her dramatic scenes as well: largely devoid of an accompanying score, and often drawn out to the point of exhaustion. Her dialogue-heavy sequences are aesthetically inert, further muting the momentum of a tale that, in narrative terms, winds up being a series of clichés piled on top of general preposterousness.
As Ajla becomes Danijel's concubine, then briefly escapes confinement to reunite with her sister (who just happens to be hiding out with nearby Muslim resistance fighters), and then again winds up with Danijel—who keeps her as his personal prisoner so as to protect her from his comrades—In the Land of Blood and Honey finds a way to propel itself via one artificially manufactured twist after another. The result is that, despite committed turns from Marjanović and Kostić, the central couple is never convincing, given that their relationship proceeds from an obvious opposite-sides-of-the-war dynamic and never builds to anything approaching a complex or ambiguous destination. Instead, theirs is merely an untenable romance seemingly doomed from the outset, and though it's refreshing that Jolie doesn't give in to Hollywood happily-ever-after pap, the alternative resolution she supplies fails to adequately render her characters' circumstances as emblematic of Bosnia's internal fissures, as well as falls short of providing any genuine insight into universal, contradictory emotional conflicts. Consequently, despite regularly jumping forward in time with sudden rapidity, this wannabe-serious film comes off as not just unenlightening, but borderline-interminable.
Cast: Zana Marjanović, Goran Kostić, Rade Šerbedžija, Vanesa Glodjo, Nikola Djurićko
Director/Screenwriter: Angelina Jolie
Producers: Tim Headington, Angelina Jolie, Graham King, Tim Moore
Genre: Drama; Bosnian-language, subtitled
Rating: R for war violence and atrocities including rape, sexuality, nudity and language
Running time: 127 min.
Release date: December 23, 2011