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In the Land of Blood and Honey is a respectable war movie — despite the superstar behind the camera

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Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and a Serb soldier (Ermin Sijamija) travel through Sarajevo in In the Land of Blood and Honey
PHOTO BY DEAN SEMLER
In the Land of Blood and Honey by Angelina Jolie

Not that Blood and Honey doesn't have its genuine faults. There's contrivance in the way that young Muslim painter Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and Serb cop Danijel (Goran Kostic) have a first date just as the war reaches 1992 Sarajevo — we never do find out how they met or how well they already know each other — then intersect again when she's a POW and he's an officer in the Serbian Army. This allows him to save her from the regular rapes other women prisoners suffer at the hands of guards, and eventually to set her up as his protected mistress, a breach of code that is unwelcome news to the ears of his powerful father General Nobosjsa (Rade Serbedzija), a fanatical "ethnic cleanser." This premise is typical movie exceptionalism, even if it's still a good step above the usual device of casting a Western character-star as our guide in unpleasant foreign affairs (see: Christian Bale in Zhang Yimou's new Rape of Nanking drama The Flowers of War). The queasy but passionate love under impossible circumstances between Danijel and Ajla is compelling, but never as powerful as several instances of madness and cruelty that befall subsidiary characters, like the brutalization of a young woman who volunteers her sewing services, or an infant's thoughtless fate simply for crying. The shocking senselessness of war atrocities depicted in scenes like these have some of the gut-punch impact of similar bits in Schindler's List (1993). Keeping herself off camera (unlike many an actor turned director), Jolie also keeps stylistic flourishes likewise; Blood and Honey isn't impersonal, but eschews any vestige of auteurist "personality." (Comparisons may be odious, but it's worth noting the seriousness Jolie achieves this way is the diametrical opposite of the superficial showiness displayed by Madonna's directorial calisthenics to date.) It's immaculately crafted, though, and the assurance with which the director tempers her own screenplay's potential for excess suggests a refined intelligence beyond what can be condescendingly explained away by having the funds and ability to hire first-rate collaborators.

While not a great movie, Blood and Honey is a very good one; an honorable achievement, not just a vehicle for honorable intentions. Of course the point is nothing more complicated than "War is hell," but how often do movies actually punch that across, as opposed to pouting a bit while making war look exciting?

Don't hate her movie because she's beautiful, rich, freaky, not Jennifer Aniston, or anything else related to the larger-than-lifeness of being Angelina Jolie. If someone else made In the Land of Blood and Honey, there would be little question about admiring its stark effectiveness. Of course, if someone else had made it, you probably wouldn't be interested in seeing it, or even able to — the one positive her celebrity brings to bear here.

IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY opens Fri/5 in San Francisco.

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