‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’ offers the bitter with the sweet

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In the Land of Blood and Honey

Directed by Angelina Jolie

Written by Angelina Jolie

U.S.A., 2011

It is no secret that Hollywood darling Angelina Jolie invests time and energy in far more than just her film roles. She is also a humanitarian and spokesperson for a variety of major issues in conflict plagued countries around the globe. Luckily, her fame has awarded so much clout that her efforts as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have led to more people being made aware of those same issues than otherwise would have been the case. With that knowledge in mind, it should come as no surprise that when given the opportunity to direct her first feature length film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, she opted for a story well suited to her interests, namely, humanitarian atrocities in a war-torn country,

As a short text explains before the audience is thrust into the thick of things, Bosnia-Herzegovina was, at one time, one of the most unique countries in Europe for its juxtaposition between relative political stability and its cultural and ethnic diversity. All that would change in 1992, when many in the Serbian camp felt the need to take a stance against the country’s Muslim population, clamping down on those communities via pillage, rape and mass killings. It is just before the pace of the attempted genocide switches into full gear that a Serb policeman, Danijel (Goran Kostic), and a Muslim painter, Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), fall for each other. However, their blossoming bond is handed a rash dose of the country’s reality one night at a dance club when an explosion rocks the establishment to its core, killing many in the process. Months pass and the Serbian army has really taken a stranglehold on the country, deporting Muslim families from their apartments, slaughtering the men and using the women for mundane chores…or worse. In an amazing twist of fate, Danijel and Ajla meet again, although this time the former is a captain in the army whereas the latter is nothing more than a POW. Danijel’s emotions get the better of him as he uses his power position to secure Ajla a comfortable job with decent living quarters, although one has to wonder how long the two lovers can keep up their affair.

Actors who shift gears and adorn the director’s hat do not always produce the most illustrious of results. It is one thing to work in front of the camera, occasionally pitching in with an idea or two to help propel the story, but it is an entirely different matter when the entirety of a picture’s success rests on one’s shoulders for the first time. Recent history has provided some interesting success stories, Ben Affleck and Sylvester Stallone being two examples. Placing Angelina Jolie among that same class may require another film before she to really finds a focused and confident voice, but that being said, In the Land of Blood and Honey is nonetheless a welcomed debut and a solid indication of what may come provided Jolie chooses to pursue a career as a director.

The most compelling aspect of the film rests with its two leads, especially Goran Kostic, who resembles Daniel Craig in an uncanny way. The actor inhabits a character who lives with the daily struggle of not merely engaging in combat for a war he hesitates to fully believe in, but also of having to preserve the secrecy of his love for a woman, something that, obviously, should never have to be controversial in the slightest provided their are no hater mongers breathing down one’s neck every two seconds. His role is of astounding complexity for the range of emotions he must convey as well as in the manner in which he may indulge in them. The film landscape is overpopulated with noisy, showy performances in films such as these. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a technique, and even though Kostic does given in to some agitation, the moments are always earned and feel right for the character. On the whole, his acting is impressively measured, and so it must be, for wavering too far on one side of his conflict or the other will he put himself or Ajla at risk. Zana Marjanovic’s performance does not quite reach an equal level of quality, perhaps because her character, despite being the victim in this scenario, is actually the more subdued of the two, the more reserved, so there is simply less there on the screen to impress the audience. She is given several scenes to show off some solid acting chops, in particular during the second half of the film, with the standout being when Danijel’s father, a general who has learned of his son’s affair, storms into her apartment room and demands that she paint his portrait. Marjanovic subtly juggles apprehension and modesty (in order to appease the elderly man) brilliantly.

As is often the case with first time directors, the movie’s most glaring handicap is that it tries to do a lot but fails to consistently mesh its varying ingredients together into perfect harmony. This strangely separates Blood and Honey into two distinctive halves, with the second being far stronger than the first. Not to say that the first hour is a chore, only that much of what transpires feels like obligatory setup for the second half to fully pay off. Chief among the elements that require introduction is the love angle, but there is the matter of the chores the women slave away at, the rapes they were victims of, life in the combat zones, and the lives of people who succeeded in dwelling in the residential neighborhoods before being caught, the latter which is actually depicted even after Ajla is captured, making it seem even more useless than it could have been otherwise if the decision making had been a bit more judicious. In order to set up the second half, the story has Ajla flee captivity, but this sequence amounts to very little given that she re-enters the camps about 10 minutes later in the film, and although she returns for very good reasons which are revealed only at the very end, there could have easily been other, more organic story methods to work around that plot development. Individually, these aspects are fascinating in their own right, but knowing that there is a sharper character driven piece that should be the focus of the film, they do make Blood and Honey drag somewhat.

There is something to be said about a film that excels in the latter stages, which is absolutely the case with Jolie’s movie. The last hour is phenomenal at depicting the excruciating turmoil the two leads live with. Each identifies him or herself very much with their respective ethnicity, yet neither can resist the unavoidable pull dictated by their hearts. The relationship grows ever more complicated when each comes to understand the crimes other side has committed. This portion is above and beyond the finest the film has to offer because all of the aforementioned ingredients come together in support of this intimacy.

Angelina Jolie’s first foray as a director is far from perfect, occasionally losing its way in the first hour, yet in the end still manages to elicit some earned emotional responses. Supported by two fantastic performances, the film certainly ends on a high note, at least in terms of its quality. As for the story and its central lovers, well, that is for the audience to find out.

-Edgar Chaput

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