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In the Land of Blood and Honey

Theatrical Review

FilmDistrict; 127 minutes

Director: Angelina Jolie

Written by on December 23, 2011 

In the Land of Blood and Honey marks a violent, promising directorial debut for mega-star Angelina Jolie. This is a hard-R look at a hopeful relationship that’s challenged to suffocating lengths against the backdrop of the Bosnian War. Danijel (Goran Kostić), fighting for the Serbs under the fierce guardianship of Nebojsa (Rade Serbedzija), finds his camp infiltrated one afternoon with opposing hostages who are then raped one by one by the remorseless Serb soldiers. Danijel recognizes Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), whom he met at a party that’s shown in the flooring opening sequence, as one of the captive women, and keeps her from being violated.

This is the initial nature of their association. Danijel, high up on the Serb command chain, quietly watches over the goings-on in his camp and makes sure that Ajla isn’t on the receiving end of the vile behavior of his cohorts. Danijel is an interesting character because while he seems to believe in the cause of his side, he shares none of the unabashed cruelty of his compadres. Ajla’s plight, meanwhile, is heightened by her forced separation from her sister Lejla (Vanessa Glodjo).

Jolie‘s direction here is consistently assured. She’s no doubt aided by first-rate work from her collaborators — namely Dean Semler‘s gorgeous, harrowing cinematography and Gabriel Yared‘s musical score — but she nevertheless deserves credit for crafting this film with the confidence and conviction of a behind-the-camera veteran. If I didn’t know going into it that In the Land of Blood and Honey was a debut, I never would have suspected it.

It’s Jolie‘s work on the page, however, that gives the film its uneven impact. (She’s the sole credited screenwriter.) About the first hour, I’d say, is terrifying and gripping, full of rich dramatic potential and nerve-racking intrigue. From there, though, she seems unsure of where to take the bond between Danijel and Ajla. Some of the late-blooming tensions between the two feel forced by a need to propel or complicate the narrative, and there are at least two pseudo-masochistic scenes that are probably the most mishandled in the film.

These narrative bumps are rendered even more disappointing, unfortunately, because of the film’s final shot, which is packed with powerful character implications that weren’t adequately intertwined within the overall arc. That closing image reveals the dark, twisted intentions Jolie had in mind, and if they were integrated more seamlessly throughout, the final impact would’ve surely been a more jarring one.

Those storytelling hiccups aside, In the Land of Blood and Honey is an impressive first outing for Jolie, made all the more admirable by the fact that its unblinking disturbance — well, aside from those few S&M-tinged encounters — comes off as carrying a genuinely honest quality as opposed to the lesser goal of mere provocation. This is clearly a passion project for Jolie — I’m sure she had more potentials on her plate than a foreign-language, Bosnian War-set sexual drama — and that commitment shines through in the finished product.

The question mark for the future aligns itself with Jolie‘s ability as a screenwriter. She certainly does a sufficient job here — it’s no easy task to fashion together an involving two-hour screen story — but there are still noticeable bruises in the writing department that hold the film back. I’ll be interested to see what Jolie does next — whether she’ll hand off the scripting duties to someone else, or hang on to them herself. For now, we’ll have to settle for the principal question being answered — Jolie can direct.

(Note: Jolie filmed versions of the film in both English and Bosnian. I saw the foreign-language cut, which, compared to the English-language trailer, appears to sound slightly more authentic. But it’s worth seeing in either context, I’m sure.)

In the Land of Blood and Honey is now in limited release.


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