“In the Land of Blood and Honey,” directed and co-written by Angelina Jolie, refuses to spare its audience or its characters.
A grim twist on “Romeo and Juliet” set amidst mass rape and ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, the film is part parade of war-crime horrors, part harrowing melodrama. It’s hard to watch, but Miss Jolie’s vision of social breakdown and affectless barbarism is so powerful that it deserves to be seen.
When the movie opens, Bosnia is at peace. A young woman named Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) goes on a date with a soldier named Danijel (Goran Kostic) at a local club. They flirt. They smile. They dance. And then a bomb goes off. Suddenly, their whole world is over.
When we next see Ajla, it’s four months later. Her apartment is raided by Serbian soldiers to brutal effect. The men are machine gunned; the women are taken off to a work camp to serve soldiers and be raped.
For roughly the next hour, Miss Jolie offers a cold, precise, sometimes shocking chronicle of a world wrecked by atrocity: forced relocations, mass shootings and random killings. Degradation and humiliation (old women forced to strip so soldiers can laugh) mixes with unspeakable horrors (shallow graves packed with bodies and filled in by bulldozers). After a while, it becomes hard to tell the difference — which seems to be part of the point.
The only salvation in the midst of all this is that Ajla ends up at a work camp run by Danijel — who offers her his bed, and a measure of protection. The two end up in a damaged romance — eventually a sort of hostage marriage. Their relationship, which makes up the core of the film, is marked by fascinating ambiguities.
Is Ajla genuinely attracted to Danijel, or merely accepting the comparatively easier life he offers?
Is Danijel — who at one point looks ready to take his own turn with the captive women before recognizing Alja — a monster or a savior?
The movie makes clear that the Serb forces to which Danijel belongs are responsible for the bulk of the atrocities, yet it sometimes seems to sympathize with Danijel and some of his men. It’s a movie about evil, but not villains.
Miss Jolie, whose directorial style seems influenced by an older, slower, more intentional school of filmmaking, has the sense to let the questions play out, amplifying the ambiguities rather than explaining them.
“In the Land of Blood and Honey” is the rare political movie that puts its characters first. There are few lectures, and little in the way of political history or context. In the closest thing to a political debate, Danijel defends his side, weakly, by arguing that their campaigns are “politics, not murder.” The movie, however, is long on murder and short on politics — perhaps the only reprieve the audience gets.
TITLE: “In the Land of Blood and Honey”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Angelina Jolie
RATING: R for rape, unflinching violence, nudity
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS