In the Land of Blood and Honey
Angelina Jolie's dark, difficult movie about war is far from a vanity project.
It's clear within the first few minutes of In the Land of Blood and Honey, a blunt and brutal look at genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s, that this is a serious piece of work and not simply a vanity project for its debuting writer-director, Angelina Jolie.
But while the personal story at its core carries some nuanced shadings, this impressively mounted production gradually reveals itself first and foremost as a compendium of atrocities, a catalog of pointless abuse and killings no one did much to stop for three years. Fueled by her well-known attachment to humanitarian causes, the director trains an intense light on a situation most outsiders at the time preferred not to deal with and now would rather forget about, which means that Jolie would literally have to lead people by the hand into theaters for this FilmDistrict release to do any theatrical business beyond the already committed.
Eight years ago, Jolie starred in a film, Beyond Borders, in which she sashayed around global hotspots in elegant outfits like a fashion model on a shoot. Almost as if in atonement, Blood and Honey is nothing like that, quite the contrary in fact. It centers on the queasy relationship between a captor, a Serbian army officer responsible for rounding up Muslims or otherwise making them disappear in Bosnia, and a female prisoner, a woman he was interested in before the war and is now able to exploit, but also protect, as his "personal property."
A raucous opening scene in a dance hall suggests that blond, thirtyish Danijel (Goran Kostic) is quite keen on dark-haired Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), but that nothing has yet happened between them. Maybe this will be the night but, bang, the place is blown up. Four months later, unidentified troops charge into an apartment complex, separate the men to be shot and herd the younger women onto a bus to be taken away to a place where they're stuffed into a cramped room. One of them is raped in front of the others, and Ajla is next in line until Danijel steps in to spare her.
Audiences unversed in the politics of the era will scarcely know what to make of all this until Danijel's tough father, Nebojsa (Rade Serbedzija), a senior Serbian officer who's seen it all, helpfully explains things. It was the Serbs, he self-justifyingly points out, who prevented the Turks from conquering Europe centuries ago and stood up to Hitler; now, in 1992, it's their responsibility to turn out the Muslims before they take over. It's easy to see that the crusty old bird suspects that his son may not be made of stern enough stuff to do what it takes. Conversely, Danijel knows he has something to prove, so even though he doesn't like the idea of killing people he grew up with and went to school with, he gets on with the job. The men under his command show no such compunction, blowing up a Red Cross ambulance with a bazooka and picking off Muslims at every opportunity.
Under Danijel's protection, Ajla doesn't have to worry nearly so much as the other women do about being randomly assaulted or murdered on a whim. It's inevitable she'll sooner or later have to submit to her subjugator, who's generally civil to her but at a moment's notice could throw her to the wolves. But when she relents, he reciprocates by not only telling her she's got to run away but how she can escape.
At this point, as Danijel's responsibilities become more heinous and the action moves to Sarajevo in 1993, the barbarism is ratcheted up: Women are used as human shields; anyone darting through the streets is fair game for target practice; mutual suspicion and blame mount on all fronts; and death becomes a way of life, to the point where all the characters have become numb and the viewer may have had enough, having long since gotten the point. Good drama has you anxious to know what's going to happen next; Blood and Honey has you dreading to learn what atrocity awaits around the corner.
It's no surprise, then, that nothing good comes of anything, at least until 1995, when United Nations choppers finally materialize in the skies above the ruins. The film's final line comes across as both quietly dramatic and highly unlikely.
Jolie deserves significant credit for creating such a powerfully oppressive atmosphere and staging the ghastly events so credibly, even if it is these very strengths that will make people not want to watch what's onscreen. All the director's decisions were taken in the interest of heightened verisimilitude, from working in the Bosnian language (an English-language version is available as well) to using as many authentic locations as possible (some in Bosnia, others in Hungary) and having cinematographer Dean Semler employ a combat-ready style. The production was protested and kicked out of Sarajevo due to charges that the Serbs were uniquely being singled out for abuse; while some of the original detractors have withdrawn their criticisms, others have sprung up, and it would be surprising if such squabbles did not continue, regardless of accuracy.
Gabriel Yared's effective score blends in some regional influences while working toward a low-key haunted feel.
Providing most of the film's nuance and subtlety is Marjanovic, who keeps obvious emotions in check but closely registers the most minute changes in Danijel's attitudes and the temperature of conditions around her. Much as he might prefer it, Kostic's equivocal Danijel can't get away with being "the good Serb," given the scrutiny he receives from his father and the trigger-happy men under his command.
The title stems from the fact that, in reference to the Balkans, the Turkish word for honey is "bal" while the word for blood is "kan."
Release date Dec. 23 (FilmDistrict)
Cast Zana Marjanovic, Goran Kostic, Rade Serbedzija
Director-screenwriter-producer Angelina Jolie
Rated R, 127 minutes