Jolie's Bold 'Blood and Honey' Too Ambitious
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Set throughout the Bosnian war -- with all the attendant strangeness and tragedy of that moment in history, as a nation-state consumed itself -- Angelina Jolie's "In the Land of Blood and Honey" is a surprising directorial and screenwriting debut, a film whose very setting and subject would challenge the skill and sensitivity of a master filmmaker. Jolie's reluctant work as the most-photographed woman in the world, though, has always been tempered by the sense of real talent and real humanity under the shallow gloss of the image, and by her personal and public work in real charity. (To not discuss Jolie's celebrity is disingenuous; to discuss her celebrity alone, tedious.)
So as the work of a first-time filmmaker, "In the Land of Blood and Honey" is ambitious: a period-piece subtitled war film, with the action that entails, about a recent conflict, trying to tell a human story of connection in a place where paramilitary thugs in hodgepodge mixtures of soccer gear and military uniforms took people away to be killed. We open in peace, with sultry-eyed (and supportive sister) Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) dancing in a club with local lawman Danijel (Goran Kostic), a moment of normalcy that's ripped apart by war. Months later, Ajla is being brought to the local headquarters, which is pretty much a rape camp. And Danijel is there. Danijel is in charge. And Ajla is a Muslim, and a woman, at a time when to be either is to face worse than death. The film's opening titles noted that "Serbs, Croats and Muslims lived in harmony for decades before ..." without saying how we got to bombs at the disco. A little history would not be remiss, though at the same time at least Jolie doesn't force-feed facts and deluge us with dates.
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Which is why it's so disturbing when Danijel and Ajia's fear and misuse of each other turns to a romance, and then turns toward tragedy. No amount of soft lighting and delicate music over the sight of two people making love can erase the fact that, afterward, one of those lovers will be able to leave the room and the other cannot. Is that the point? Things move even further into the realm of tragedy as we learn that Danijel's father, Nebojsa (Rade Serbedzija), is the general commanding the local Serb militias. The setting is up-to-the-minute -- we hear news reports on both a Republican assertion in favor of non-involvement that "We don't have a dog in that fight," while President Clinton is also called out for failure to act. The political and historical roots of this film stretch back to before the World Wars or current empires. But the emotional and structural undercurrents of the script only seem to go as far as Shakespeare's star-crossed two warring families in the fair city of Verona.
And the romance material -- not romantic -- is most problematic, for obvious reasons. Yet I will note that Jolie, working along with cinematographer Dean Semler ("Apocalypto," "Dances With Wolves" and many more) has a real and remarkable capacity for capturing performance -- and image -- through the human face. Marjanovic and Kostic both have scenes that speak volumes without making a sound, and tackle intense acting moments. Credit must also go to editor Patricia Rommel ("The Lives of Others") for crafting a film that jumps over months and years but never becomes confusing or unclear. Does adding a human, fictional relationship to these circumstances of blood and hate use art to illuminate how those things work, or is the real circumstance of blood and hate cheapened by adding mere fictional drama? It's not that "The Land of Blood and Honey" is trying to skate by these serious topics on mere star appeal and the currency of Ms. Jolie's name; in fact, the problem's just the opposite as the film strains and struggles with its weight of portent and pain.
Considering the historical, ethical and technical challenges in the mix -- a first-time director recreating a war of ethnic cleansing on a bombs-and-bullets level, with charged issues or power and abuse, along with the challenge of shooting in a second language in a foreign land -- it is not patronizing to suggest that Mrs. Jolie's first film is an ambitious step forward that promises more, and better, in the future. The film may have more in ambition than it does in execution, but it deserves to be taken seriously as a debut by someone who may yet be as natural and assured behind the camera as she seems to be in front of it.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.