Reporting Jonathon Sharp
Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut – In the Land of Blood and Honey – fails to start strong despite doing so with a bang.
The year is 1992; the place is Bosnia-Herzegovina; and the Bosnian War is about to begin. We see Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Bosnian Muslim and painter, who lives in an apartment with her sister and infant nephew. Dressed in blue and with painted red lips, Ajla makes her way (sidewalk, summer) to a club, where she meets Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Bosnian Serb dressed in military garb.
The two appear to be dating: Danijel stands so close to Ajla that his nose brushes her hair. The couple begins dancing to some awful music while the rest of the crowd – a mix of shapes, shades and ages – just bobs about, clapping to the beat and eyeing the band. (If this description reads lame, try watching it.) Luckily, a bomb goes off, killing a few and placing the movie on a tragic trajectory.
I’m happy to report that In the Land of Blood and Honey gets better as it goes on. Now look at this tangle of thorns.
Shortly after the bombing, the Bosnian Serb Army rips Ajla and her neighbors from their apartment complex. The Muslim men are then machine-gunned down off screen and the young women, including Ajla, are put onto buses so as to service the Serbian army. And what services do the young officers require? That question is made clear as soon as the trip ends and the women are asked if they can (1) cook and (2) perform in bed.
As soon as the second question is put to one young woman, an officer brutally rapes her before the terror-stricken eyes of the other women. Next up on what appears to be a barbaric assembly line is our lovely Ajla – dark hair, dark eyes and features reflecting the shape of something classical, carved in marble. Just as she is about to be raped, Danijel, who is a commanding officer of this particular regiment, saves her (sort of).
He takes Ajla for his own, so as to protect her. In secret, their newly-forbidden love blossoms into an affair of fear and kisses before turning into something monstrous and self-devouring. But it is through this relationship, in which Marjanovic and Kostic play excellently, that Jolie makes something worth watching.
The most poignant images, for me, had to do with the movie’s use of contrast. The brutality war — mass rape, random, pop shot murder, the use of women as human shields, ethic cleansing – is shown in chiaroscuro against the individual, tender landscape – white hills, white thighs – of Ajla’s nude in the act of love. She is no Barbie or Kardashian; she’s exquisitely human. Jolie, despite having played Lara Croft, has shown she is quite capable of using the female nude in an artful and humanistic way.
Lovemaking, however, is no answer to war. And as Ajla and Denijel’s affair continues, it grows increasingly desperate and deadly. Ajla is torn by feelings of guilt for sleeping with a soldier of the army responsible for “cleansing” her people from the country; Danijel is distraught with his inability to choose between love and tradition.
If you haven’t gotten the impression already, In the Land of Blood and Honey is not exactly easy viewing. In fact, some scenes are likely designed to upset you. Jolie, who also wrote the movie, puts her characters through situations of intense, dehumanizing anguish. You get the impression the movie is just made to make you think: How did such atrocities happen in the 1990s?
Aside from some sloppy scenes, some slightly awkward plot maneuvers and a tone that drones on a bit too long, the movie plays like a polemic focused on getting humanity to respond, despite politics, to the crimes being committed against it.
To my sweet surprise, Jolie has shown herself capable of both writing and executing an intriguing and brutal story without it coming off as too preachy or melodramatic.
If you’re a fan of Jolie, you may certainly want to check this out.
I should say, however, that I’m not sure about the historical context. The movie’s website offers some help, but when I decided to do some reading and documentary watching about the war, I found it got messy and complicated pretty quick. Just so you know, Jolie’s movie probably shouldn’t be taken as historical fact. This does not, I think, discount the movie’s merits; just be careful how you take it.