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Entries in In the Land of Blood and Honey [2011] (1)

Wednesday
Jan112012

In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011)

Groomed to Repeat It

It's hard to admit that I'm precisely the person In the Land of Blood and Honey is aimed at. As a middle-class, pop-culture-obsessed member of the First World, I don't have to pay attention to anything outside my impenetrable, self-made sphere. Like many Americans, I'm vaguely aware of ongoing global atrocities. But unless the nightly news (which I don't watch) spends more than two minutes on a topic, or the newspaper (which I don't read) devotes an unusually large font to a headline, I'm perfectly content to believe that the Kardashian family is mankind's biggest existential threat. Someone else, I figure, will deal with the heavy stuff.

Thankfully, Angelina Jolie understands art's ability to wake people up to new ideas through entertainment. Her writing and directorial debut is a twisted love story set during the Bosnian War, which claimed thousands of lives in the early 1990s. Before watching the film, I didn't know what the conflict was about, who was involved, or why it was such a big deal. By the time the three-and-a-half-year war had ended, I was more concerned with graduating high school and mastering Pulp Fiction quotes.

Jolie's star power may put asses in seats, but this is no vanity project. She populates her movie with great faces and greater performers whose characters fight, rape, and scavenge their way through one of the coldest, most hopeless-looking landscapes I've seen since The Road. Instead of hiring American movie stars, she uses actors from the region--many of whom experienced the war firsthand--and presents the film in the native Serbo-Croat language, with English subtitles.

So, yeah, don't go in expecting Mr. & Mrs. Smith 2.

In the Land of Blood and Honey stars Zana Marjanovic as Ajla, a Muslim artist living in Bosnia with her sister, Lejla (Vanessa Glodjo), and infant nephew. In the spring of 1992, Ajla goes dancing with Danijel (Goran Kostic), a low-level military Serb she's just started dating. At the end of a long night of live music and laughter, a bomb destroys the club, heralding the start of the Bosnian War.

Months later, as Serbian forces amass more weapons and political power, Danijel finds himself in the middle of an ethnic-cleansing effort, spearheaded by his father, General Nebojsa (Rade Serbedzija). Diversely populated apartment complexes are raided, the men rounded up and mowed down in courtyards; the women divided up between potential sex slaves and spinsters who are only fit to return home and look after children without water or electricity.

Ajla is taken to Danijel's compound. Realizing who she is, he immediately orders his men to leave her alone. This means she's still open to humiliation and mild beatings, but rape is strictly off-limits. During their frequent meetings in Danijel's quarters, the two awkwardly resume their courtship. Ajla is in constant shock from her daily horrors, while Danijel remains somewhat oblivious, having bought into the propaganda about Serbian justice for previous Muslim atrocities. These are the worst circumstances under which to get to know someone. To Jolie's credit, the film maintains the leads' uneasy footing throughout, with both characters struggling to balance their convictions with a love they can't deny.

I won't spoil the rest of the plot by discussing it. Suffice it to say, Ajla doesn't spend the whole film in that compound, and neither does Danijel--but they do wind up together. Whether or not they have a happy ending is open to interpretation.

From a filmmaking standpoint, In the Land of Blood and Honey is completely engrossing. You'd never know from watching it that Jolie's cinematographer was the guy who shot big-budget actioners like XxX and 2012. Dean Semler's work here feels vital, independent, and appropriately restrained. Much of the film lingers on the ashen devastation of homes, galleries, and a countryside dotted with sandbags and artillery. Every once in awhile, it springs to chaotic life in the manner of Atonement or Pan's Labyrinth. This is largely an Outpost Movie, where the main setting belies the scale of internal drama and external conflict.

The movie has two minor issues, the first of which is its often grade-school-simplistic dialogue. Normally, I would write this off as the subtitle writers' need to simplify complex foreign dialogue, but the screenplay was, I assume, written by Jolie in English. Granted, there may still be translation considerations involved, but there's little pizzazz or personality in the writing. For that, we must turn to the actors' wonderful faces and gestures.

The second issue is Jolie's handling of what begins as three main plot threads. We follow Ajla, Danijel, and Lejla for about half the film, largely in parallel. Eventually, Lejla drops out of completely, only to resurface at the end. She's given such a powerful early scene that we become emotionally invested in her journey--almost more so than that of the two lovers.* The circumstances of her departure are problematic, too, raising questions as to why (MILD SPOILER) she and her friends weren't discovered at the rebel encampment when Ajla was.

Neither concern was enough to derail the movie for me. In the Land of Blood and Honey is a solid drama that brings home a lot of ideas that mainstream audiences, frankly, don't want to deal with. For me, the most striking part of the movie was how much it played like something out of the Nazi era. I was often jolted by the modernity of the actors' clothes, a sad reminder that this genocide took place merely twenty years ago and claimed (depending on which statistics you believe, between 100,000 and 300,000 lives). Audiences may also be surprised to see a "new" representation of Muslims. The film's persecuted class look and speak just like the persecutors. This race war was founded in blood more than skin color or custom.

I'm happy and embarrassed to say that Jolie has done her job well. Celebrity status makes her an easy target. It's hard for people in cushier confines to understand the significance of a person of means adopting kids from troubled parts of the globe. Hell, I'm guilty of snickering, too. But she's committed her life and art to helping those who barely have the luxury of either, which is more than I can say of ninety-nine percent of her contemporaries. Or myself.