Angelina Jolie’s debut as a writer and director is set during the Bosnian War, one of the most brutal conflicts of the last century. The film struggles to tell the story of Aijla (Zana Marjanovic), a Muslim artist and Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Serbian police officer and what may be their love story. One of the problems is that we can never tell whether it’s love between the two of them or whether it’s a matter of survival––Aijla obeying her captor, her captor holding on to his last shred of humanity by throwing scraps of kindness to his prisoner. Maybe it’s both.
The trouble is, it never becomes clear enough in the two hours it takes the film to unfold. Moreover, action and characters meld together in such a way that the central story becomes blurry. Are we expected to gasp at the atrocities or are we to hope that the lovers might find some solace amid the ruins? There’s too much going on––we’re asked to see the apathy of the world outside the conflict (especially that of the US) and the dividing lines within a nation that has a long history of teeming internal strife. One story––either Bosnia’s internal strife or the story of the lovers––would have been sufficient but the two never mingle in a satisfactory way so as to make the potent statement Jolie clearly desires.
Jolie proves herself a capable director, albeit one who has difficulty with pacing. The film saunters in places where a fuller, faster stride might be best and sprints when a leisurely walk might do. She adequately depicts the devolution of a nation at war––its rich beauty and culture eroded by its internal convulsions––and the devolution which her characters also experience as the years wear on.
The acting itself is especially strong–– Marjanovic strikes a good balance between the determined artist and the captive who struggles to maintain her humanity; Kostic strikes a similar balance between kindness and cruelty, reminding us of the complex emotions and reasoning found in human beings no matter their situation, no matter the unspeakable circumstances they find themselves in. We’re not asked to sympathize with his cause as much as to understand that he does not fully lose his humanity but that it slips from him no matter his desire to keep it under control.
Croatian actor Rade Serbedzija (Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows, X-Men First Class) plays the brutal general Nebojsa Vukojevic with the remarkable care and authenticity he lends to virtually every role he performs. The larger cast proves itself equally capable, making the film’s shortcomings easier to forgive.
The tendency for Jolie the writer to use exposition through dialogue wears at times––history lessons emerge here and there and distract from the central story that is, no matter what, the love between Danijel and Aijla. While the director’s attempt to tell a complex tale and plead for us to consider the tragedies that might emerge in future Bosnias and perhaps atone for the wrongs of the past is certainly admirable, we must not forget that sometimes a simpler story makes the greater impact.
Doubtless Jolie will continue to write and direct complex, thought-provoking films and doubtless she will get better with each passing one. In the Land of Blood and Honey is a nice––if flawed––start.
Note: The film is available as a Blu-ray and DVD combo––extras include a Making Of short and numerous deleted scenes for the DVD, while the Blu-ray features an exclusive Q&A with Jolie and actress Vanesa Glodjo.