In the Land of Blood and Honey

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/06/12 00:52:26

"Taking Lives/"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

"In the Land of Blood and Honey" is a film that wants to expose viewers to the unspeakable horrors and depravations of war--in this case, the conflict that rocked Bosnia between 1992 and 1995--in the most graphic and unflinching manner possible. At the same time, it also wants to tell a story that is gripping and interesting enough to lure viewers into sitting through some of the grimmest and most decidedly unpleasant material to hit the big screen in recent memory in a film that does not have Lars von Trier's name on it. Trying to strike an acceptable balance between these two concepts is something that has stymied even the best filmmakers--done badly and one runs the risk of trivializing an important subject and potentially offending views, done correctly and the result is a film that may be powerful but which could be well neigh impossible to watch--and so it is perhaps unfair to slam a first-time filmmaker, even one as well-known as Angelina Jolie, for not being able to quite pull it off their first time out of the gate. And yet, that is exactly the problem with "In the Land of Blood and Honey"--a sincerely made work that fuses together images of unspeakable cruelties with a storyline that is pure soap opera into a final product that is oftentimes too mechanically melodramatic for its own good.

The story begins in Sarajevo in 1992 as Muslim artist Ajila (Zana Marajanovic) and Serb cop Danijel (Goran Kostic) meet one evening in a nightclub. Sparks immediately fly between them but before anything can come of it, the night is cut short when a bomb blast rips up the club. Four months later, Serb troops, backed by Yugoslavia, occupy the city, slaughter the menfolk and send the women, Ajila included, to prison camps where they are to be subjected to repeated physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of their captors. By an astonishing coincidence, Danijel happens to be stationed at the very same camp where Ajila is being held and after saving her at the last second from being raped by another soldier, begins to quietly protect her from the others and calling her away for private meetings. Eventually, he installs her in her very own room where she can paint and they can make love away from the prying eyes of others. This works for a while but the arrangement soon arouses the suspicions of one of Danijel's superiors (Rade Serbedzija) and Ajila is once again placed in danger. Danijel concocts a plan to help her escape but there is a question as to whether her wary affection for him outweighs her feel about what he and his fellow Serbs have done to her people as a whole.

Besides being both a first-rate actress and a sex symbol of the highest order, Angelina Jolie is also known and respected for her humanitarian work throughout the world and "In the Land of Blood and Honey" is clearly an extension of that and one that she has taken very seriously, right down to having her actors speaking in their native languages rather than having them all inexplicably speaking English. (She did apparently prepare an English-language version as well but scrapped its release at the last minute.) She clearly displays some talent as a writer-director but none of the elements that she puts forth here really come together. The two main characters simply are not especially interesting as people--Ajila is kind of a cipher throughout and while Danijel's mixture of tenderness towards Ajila and cruelty towards her fellow Muslims seems to be borne less out of reality and more out of a desire to create a character along the lines of the monstrous and occasionally sympathetic madman portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in "Schindler's List"--and so the relationship that is meant to be the film's beating heart never quite catches fire. As a result, the numerous sex scenes on display are never quite as powerful or disturbing as they are clearly intended to be--instead, they wind up resembling a photo shoot for "Vanity Fair" inspired by the infamous film "The Night Porter." More dispiriting, as the film progresses, the storyline begins to follow increasingly predictable lines that seem strangely at odds with the chaos going on around it. Granted, this could be said about virtually any other film set during virtually any other period of conflict but a film like MIchael Winterbottom's "Welcome to Sarajevo," for example, was also set amidst the war in Bosnia but did a far more effective job in presenting its atrocities in a manner that made for gripping filmmaking without diminishing the real-life tragedy by reducing things to the level of conventional melodrama as Jolie has unwittingly done here.

"In the Land of Blood and Honey" is not the complete wash that some might have predicted it to be when they first heard of it--Jolie's direction is fairly solid and straightforward without any of the overdone stylistic flourishes often seen in the works of first-time filmmakers with access to a decent budget and the performances by the largely unknown actors are generally convincing even when the same cannot be said for the characters they are playing. (The only misstep is in the casting of Serbedzija as the Serb leader--his relatively familiar face is as jarring to the otherwise documentary-like approach as was the sight of Sledge Hammer among the passengers in "United 93.") The problem is that for all of her obvious good intentions, Jolie has made a film that is just so wearying in its bleakness and tedious in terms of its narrative that it becomes impossible to understand who it was even made for in the first place. On the one hand, it is so dark and brutal that those who studiously avoided learning about this particularly grisly section of world history are unlikely to have any desire to sit through this regardless of how famous its director might be and how much nudity there might be on the screen. Those who are familiar with the subject, on the other hand, are likely to come away disappointed and feeling that Jolie has squandered a golden opportunity to use her celebrity to educate the world on the subject by transforming it into the world's nastiest Lifetime movie.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.