Writer/director/producer Angelina Jolie makes a brave attempt at making the emotional impact of the Bosnian war visceral for viewers, but the poverty of her writing and stunted cinematic vocabulary turns this film into nothing more than a vanity project by a delusional Samaritan.
I knew Ms. Jolie had something to do with the new movie about the Bosnian war, In the Land of Blood and Honey. It wasn’t until the closing credits that I realized just how much she had done. By that point, I was looking for someone to blame for the unbelievably bad, contrived, clichéd, poorly-written, and poorly-edited mess of a film I’d witnessed. Jolie has no idea how to use the language of cinema to communicate anything other than the bluntest of messages, and, frankly, doesn’t have any idea how to use actual dialog or story to communicate anything at all.
It is absolutely true that the story of the post-Yugoslavian wars remains under-told – a series of nightmares that occurred with predictable and yet unstoppable horrors. This movie, however, surely was not the way to tell it. Even the relatively positive reviews I’ve read (Salon, Indiewire) laud her humanitarian intentions, which are not in doubt. It’s her delusional vision of her own skills and her egotistic desire to tell the story herself, in spite of a lack of any discernable storytelling ability, is what I find deeply troubling. A decent screenwriter and a director with some skill at telling stories (Alfonso Cuarón and Kathryn Bigelow leap to mind immediately) could have transformed this well-intentioned but unwatchable mess into something that actually brings an important story home to a broader world audience.
A word about the film-making before we get into the plot – it’s appalling. So often during the film, I was asking, “Who in the world is directing this mess?” The camera angles, the cuts, the editing – it’s a jumble-sale of pointless showiness and incomprehensible choices. Why does the camera circle a group of friends sitting around a table chatting? It builds a weird sort of tension, which is surely the opposite of its goal. Why does every conversation between the main characters happen in extreme close-up, but then jump cut from face to face after each line is spoken? It’s jarring and negates the presumed intention, which is to invest in the intimacy between the characters. I mean, the cinematography is just fine, and you can tell the camera people are happiest when given free rein to run around with the hand-helds during combat scenes. But the shot choices, the framing, and the editing consistently have me asking, “What is the director trying to convey by setting up the shot this way, editing it like that, putting it together like this?” A good director answers these questions without one ever thinking to ask; they convey atmosphere and plot effortlessly. The directorial flailing here is, instead, distracting.
But the plot – oh, the plot. The movie begins in 1992, before the war, with Ajla (Zana Marjanovic, an adorable combination of Audrey Tatou and Anne Hathaway) living with her sister Lejla (Vanessa Glodjo). Ajla is painting a picture, taking care of Lejla’s baby son, and singing along to a pop song on the radio. Lejla convinces Ajla to go clubbing, and, I get it, it’s all intended to connect Ajla with the audience – she’s JUST like us. Still, any thought that the film is trying to depict the culture in small-town Bosnia (single mother and her boho sister, heading out alone hoping to meet a guy) is wiped away when Ajla gets to the club. As the camera pans around the room, I half expected to see Ryan Gosling giving pointers to Steve Carell on how to pick up local chicks while patrons sipped Patron out of frosted lowball glasses. Exposed brick, high ceilings, recessed mood lighting – yeah, this is exactly how a bar in a provincial town in 1992 Bosnia must have looked. Jolie clearly hasn’t been to a bar without an exclusive door policy and bottle service in a decade or two. Ajla starts sexy dancing with a Bosnian Serb police officer, Danjiel (Goran Kostic, looking like a cross between Will Arnett and Ralph Fiennes), as the uber-hip band play on.
The atmosphere is so inauthentic, it almost comes as a relief when a bomb goes off, knocking us into the relative reality of the ensuing Bosnian war. The aftermath of the bomb is shown with some evocation of the atmosphere: people looking for the living and the dead. Still, there’s a shocking lack of carnage and none of the pools of blood one would naturally expect in such a charnel house. This happens a few times in the film, and confused me a bit. I was especially struck with the contrast between a scene early in the film, where a character is shot point blank in the head and falls to the ground without any blood, and the one at the end, with a massive viscera stain and a giant, expanding pool of blood. I’m not saying it’s necessary to show carnage in a movie, but since part of the whole point of the film was the horror of the war, I’m surprised at how little blood there is.
Ajla and Lejla’s apartment complex is soon seized by local Bosnian Serb paramilitaries, who first come to loot, then to separate out the men and execute them. Then they confiscate the property and load up the remaining women, children, and elderly onto buses to ship them off to camps. This is heartrending stuff, and heartbreakingly accurate, down to the faux legality of forcing locals to sign giving their possessions over to the Bosnian Serbs. Ajla is taken to a camp with the other attractive women to be raped repeatedly and kept for labor and sex, although Ajla is spared rape when Danijel, now a commander in the Bosnian Serb paras, recognizes her in the initial lineup and keeps her for his own. [Side note: it’s kind of remarkable that for being kept prisoner with the same clothes for months, her shirt whites stay shiny white and her cardigan yellows stay sunny yellow! What’s her secret??!?] And here’s where the movie goes totally to shit. I mean, the horror of what’s happening is numbing – Lejla’s attempts to survive under constant terror of rampaging mobs of ill-disciplined paras, rape as a systemic weapon of war, arbitrary murder and detention – but Jolie tries to keep us engaged and interested by developing the love interest between Ajla and Danijel.
I can guess how this happened. Jolie was thinking: “This is some heavy subject matter, and I’m really going to lose people in telling the story of the siege of Sarajevo and the ongoing horrors of the war. How can I keep people interested? I know, a LOVE INTEREST. DONE!”
No, really, a thousand times no. The plot becomes simultaneously completely unexpected and utterly implausible. Danijel locks Ajla up; they debate morality, make love, and fall in love. He gets in trouble with his dad, who, naturally, disapproves of a relationship between a Muslim and a Serb. Oh, and Dad is the Mladić-esque commander of Bosnian Serb force. So, love, war, rape, daddy issues, plucky rebels, evil Bosnian Serbs, blah, blah, blah. By the film’s twin denouements, I’m so appalled and bored (it’s two hours of agony to get to this point), I can’t wait to get out and go home so I could watch No Man’s Land, a truly great film about the horrors and absurdities of the Bosnian war. Save your money, spare yourself – In the Land of Rape, sorry, Blood and Honey is a waste of everyone’s time.