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Ironically, the very attributes that make Angelina Jolie’s debut as a writer/director most effective – the film’s gritty and realistic depiction of the horrors of ethnic cleansing – are the same reasons viewers are likely to decline watching it. There’s a wartime love story at the center of In the Land of Blood and Honey, but the film’s true heart lies in its compendium of atrocities that occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the first half of the Nineties. The details of the genocide are brutal, and perhaps that’s part of the reason the world turned a deaf ear for more than three years to what was happening there.
The film opens in 1992 as a date between two would-be lovers – Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and Danijel (Goran Kostic) – ends in a shattering manner: A bomb goes off and abruptly cuts in on their dance while also blowing the cafe and its patrons to smithereens. The war between the previously cosmopolitan country’s Serbs and Muslims has begun and its not until months later, under very different circumstances, that Ajla and Danijel again meet. Ajla is a Muslim who has been rounded up with other young, attractive women to serve as sex slaves to their Serbian captors. (Rape came to be regarded as an international war crime as a result of this war.) Danijel is a commander of the camp she is sent to, and under his auspices she is protected from rape. Thus begins a furtive, three-year-long relationship between the pair that spans a change of camps and shifts in allegiances. Does Ajla feel love or merely want protection? Can Danijel, who has compunctions about killing people he grew up with, really be an effective military commander by day and traitorous lover by night? The affair stretches plausibility and has moments of The Night Porter’s perversity.
Jolie, however, shows great promise as a visual storyteller, even though this love story is stretched too thinly. The film’s random killings and systematic rapes are revealed as blunt shocks. The deprivations of war, the silent aftershock of a bomb blast, the rubble, and the terror are all convincingly conveyed. Well-known as an international humanitarian, Jolie clearly created In the Land of Blood and Honey with an agenda. That’s not necessarily a sin, but it’s not usually the best soil for cultivating art. Jolie has good instincts, though, and when she relies on them, she creates highly dramatic, intensely emotional, and vividly felt moments.