Zana Marjanovic, left, and Boris Ler in a scene from "In the Land of… (Ken Regan / Film District )
What Angelina Jolie has accomplished in "In the Land of Blood and Honey" is both impressive and unexpected. But because the task she set for herself is so difficult, it is not quite enough.
Though not appearing on screen, Jolie functions as writer, director and co-producer of a film with subject matter so painful and emotionally complex it would be a challenge for even the most experienced creator.
Not surprisingly for someone serious about involvement with humanitarian causes, Jolie has set "Blood and Honey" in the violent maelstrom of the former Yugoslavia during the war in Bosnia that lasted between 1992 and 1995. It was a war of militias against civilians, a conflict that involved brutal ethnic cleansing and so many tens of thousands of women raped that it became the first time the act was prosecuted under international law as a stand-alone crime against humanity.
Making the situation even more agonizing was that all this brutality and death happened between ethnic groups that had learned to live together in peace, frequently intermarried and turned their cities into models of diversity. Then ultra-nationalist politicians gained power and the nightmares came.
Though "Blood and Honey" was largely shot in Hungary, one of the most impressive things Jolie has accomplished is giving her film a palpable sense of authenticity, both in terms of acting and fidelity to events. She has used local actors, only one of whom (the veteran Rade Serbedzija) will be familiar to domestic audiences, and has shot in the local language, which, in an indication of how fragmented things still remain, is now referred to as Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian or BCS.
"Blood and Honey's" story radiates out from a personal relationship between a man and woman, two Bosnians with different backgrounds who were just starting to form a romantic bond when it was still OK for them to do so. Danijel (Goran Kostic) is a police officer with a Serbian background, while Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) is a Muslim artist who lives with her sister Lejla (Vanesa Glodjo) and her sister's baby. We see them enjoying a dance club date, and then the war intrudes and everything changes.
Suddenly Ajla's apartment house is attacked by an armed Serbian paramilitary group that marches the men off, presumably to be executed, and takes the women to a compound where rape by soldiers is the rule. Even though his presence and his authority offer the possibility of protection, Ajla is horrified to find that Danijel, revealed to be the son of a Bosnian Serb general (Serbedzija), is a captain in this army.
"Blood and Honey" examines what happens to Danijel and Ajla over the course of all the years of the conflict as they try to find an equilibrium point that will balance their tricky emotional and sexual lives, considering the new power dynamics and the different way they view the political situation.
When she, for instance, screams, "Are we so terrible that we should be exterminated?" he replies, "It's politics, not murder." She answers, "It's murder for political gain."
As a director, Jolie has been especially vigilant in keeping the acting from becoming overdone or indulgent, often a temptation when actors go behind the camera. And she has done her homework about the conflict's disturbing, unflinching atrocities as well as the rationales the Bosnian Serbs used for their actions.
Unfortunately, "Blood and Honey" has script problems: Its core story is less compelling than its overall atmosphere. The Ajla/Danijel relationship is not always convincing, key plot points can feel contrived and the preponderance of Bosnian Serb bad guys comes off as schematic. To compare this to, say, Lu Chuan's equally brutal "City of Life and Death" is to see how far this film needs to travel.
Yet the fact remains that this is a first film and Jolie has accomplished a great deal in a difficult area. In interviews, Serbedzija, who has been directed by Clint Eastwood, has said Jolie reminded him of the great actor turned filmmaker. If things break right, perhaps a career like his could be in the offing.