There is no doubting Angelina Jolie’s ambition. Her well-publicized humanitarianism — of which “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” her directing debut, seems a natural extension — is equally impressive, yet has left a target on her back.
Note the exuberance with which some have dismissed as a vanity project this wartime drama, which doubles as a sobering meditation on gender politics.
The movie, from Jolie’s original screenplay, deserves better.
Despite narrative missteps — including a relationship, between a Muslim artist (Zana Marjanovic) and a reluctant Serbian soldier (Goran Kostic), that’s hard to believe — the director’s vision is bold and uncompromising, particularly as she recreates the atrocities of the war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995.
If she lacks subtlety, rubbing our noses in the violence that Western powers all but ignored until a belated NATO intervention, she can be excused: Genocide is not nuanced. The brutality she depicts is disturbing, and if she makes her point with a sledgehammer, that seems appropriate in context.
Here, the conflict serves as the backdrop for an improbable courtship, as Danijel, a cop recruited to preside over an ethnic-cleansing nightmare by his domineering father (Rade Serbedzija), takes Ajla, one of thousands of Bosnian women held in concentration camps, as his lover.
She is his captive — his “property,” he smugly explains, as if expecting her gratitude — and yet something blossoms. Is it love? How could it be? A desperate bid for self-preservation? Maybe, but Ajla seems to give herself to Danijel willingly, embracing, perhaps, the humanity he conceals as his men rape and plunder their way through a morbidly desolate countryside.
Outside Danijel’s quarters, where Ajla bides her time as his personal portraitist, “Blood and Honey” shows the war in the simplest possible terms: The Serbians are the bad guys, relishing the torture they inflict on their Bosnian rivals.
Attempts are made to explain the root of the madness, mostly through self-conscious expository dialogue, but Jolie’s approach isn’t quite fair and balanced.
It is, however, provocative. Critics have suggested that Jolie reveals her Hollywood pedigree by mixing the horrors of war with a love story. But even if Danijel and Ajla’s romance feels hastily sketched, and far-fetched, it is fascinating in its sheer perversity.
Still, there’s no denying that Jolie’s flair for directing eclipses her screenwriting. The movie, entirely in Slavic dialects with subtitles, is handsome and assuredly paced, with a denouement as bleak as the war itself. There is nothing Hollywood about it, and for that, Jolie, who clearly has a future behind the camera, should be commended.
Starring Zana Marjanovic, Goran Kostic, Rade Serbedzija, Branko Djuric
Written and directed by Angelina Jolie
Running time 2 hours 7 minutes