In the Land of Blood and Honey is a respectable war movie — despite the superstar behind the camera
FILM The grudging, occasionally outright hostile tone some critics, culture vultures, and fan types have taken toward In the Land of Blood and Honey points toward a fundamental problem most of them have, though few admit it: the belief that Angelina Jolie is just too damn famous, too much a figure of public speculation and private fantasy, to be taken seriously — let alone to make a movie about rape and genocide during the War in the Balkans.
That bleak historical chapter occurred about the same time that Jolie was a Beverly Hills goth teen into knife play, too many recreational drugs, and her brother (eww), with a fledgling professional resume consisting of modeling gigs, music videos, and an inglorious starring role in 1993's Cyborg 2. Since then she has grown up a lot, and in ways that count (adopting children as well as bearing them, actually working at her "humanitarian causes" rather than using them as photo ops), is sort of a model world citizen as far as ginormous movie stars go. She also paired off with another such example, Brad Pitt — World's Sexiest Woman, meet World's Sexiest Man, cue celestial chorus — and while it may be a coincidence, shortly after that event he started consistently behaving onscreen like a real actor and less like an International Male model.
Jolie, too, can act, but since becoming a big star (circa 2001's Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), it's been disappointing how seldom she's been called upon to do so — as opposed to bringing the near-cartoonish va-voom and ass-whup in movies like 2003's Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, 2005's Mr. & Mrs. Smith, 2008's Wanted, and 2010's Salt. Truth be told, when she has gotten a serious part in a serious film such as 2008's Changeling or 2007's A Mighty Heart, the stubborn glare of celebrity hobbles our ability to let her disappear into the role. It's not fair, but there ya go. Those are highly competent, versatile performances that nonetheless might be more effective if delivered by someone whose first name alone seems to call for an exclamation point.
This is all beside the point when it comes to In the Land of Blood and Honey, or ought to be. But the fact is, her narrative debut as writer and director (she's also credited with a little-seen 2007 documentary, A Place in Time) would probably be getting reviews in the respectable-to-rave range if created by anyone else. It's certainly gotten some of those, but you'd be hard-pressed not to glimpse a certain "Who does she think she is?" resentment behind others who see the film as heavy-handed do-gooderism from a chick who should leave cinematic commentary about profoundly tragic historical events to people who are less ... er, sexy.
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.