Set during the war between Serbians and Bosnians in the 1990s, Angelina Jolie’s well-intended narrative feature directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey revolves around the queasy romance between a Serbian military leader and a Bosnian muslim woman. They meet before the war really gets going and are reconnected when she ends up imprisoned at a camp of which he is in charge. The result is an uncomfortable and only occasionally successful mix of world, cultural and sexual politics.
In part, In the Land of Blood and Honey is a weak hand slap to the United States for not intervening sooner in a war that led to genocide and 100,000 dead. Personally, I’m squeamish about the use of force whether it’s “humanitarian” or not and I find the pat assumptions the film makes about when and where to apply our military kind of appalling. Jolie compounds the problem by never really trying to explain or understand the nature of the conflict in the first place. Maybe that was not her mission. Perhaps she believes we should step in whenever there is ethnic strife regardless of the reasons or history behind it. Unfortunately there’s no ground upon which to argue with her because she never bothers to make a real case.
Somewhat more successfully, In the Land of Blood and Honey serves as another illustration of the horrors of war, in this case particularly a civil war and how in those cases women always seem to get the worst of it. It’s effective, but it’s territory we’ve visited many times before and much more powerfully. City of Life and Death is a terrific recent example. By comparison, Jolie’s film almost seems naive.
The real strength to In the Land of Blood and Honey involves the oddly compelling and deeply complicated sexual dynamics between the Muslim Alja and her captor/protector Danijel. Jolie relies heavily upon her actors Zana Marjanovi and Goran Kosti to help her navigate this emotionally charged territory and they’re terrific. They are cultural enemies yet they are lovers and it’s not even as clear cut as that. Is he just drawn to her because he can control her? Is she just drawn to him because he protects her? It’s the age old male/female power relationship exaggerated to an extreme and it is here that In the Land of Blood and Honey finds the energy that keeps it from being entirely dismissed.
Setting her story against the backdrop of the not-widely-understood Bosnian War probably seemed like a good idea at the time, and if the film had shown any real understanding of the war itself or had shown an interest in illuminating the conflict and/or the people fighting it, this could’ve really been something to see. As it is, the war and the politics feel like extraneous details that weaken rather than strengthen the more intimate story at the film’s core.