Angelina Jolie’s ambitious In the Land of Blood and Honey is the very definition of a noble failure – AWARDS ALLEY

by Scott Mendelson Angelina Jolie’s director debut is caught between two very specific goals. On one hand, it wants to be a thoughtful, adult romantic drama that happens to be set during a period of rather ghastly civil war. On the other, because there really hasn’t been a major motion picture set during the Bosnian war that raged primarily from 1992-1995, writer/director Jolie feels a need to craft a somewhat definitive account of the conflict. As a result, much of the picture feels like a glorified book report, with characters ham-fistedly explaining the nature of the conflict, the living conditions of the victims, and character arcs. The film constantly violates the ‘show-don’t-tell’ rule, with lead characters explicitly stating their emotions and their character arc. Like Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (which dealt with the 1915 Armenian genocide), the film spends much time feeling less like a movie and more like a verbal power-point presentation. The film earns kudos for revealing a bit of somewhat forgotten history, and it deserves plaudits for telling its story from the point of view of actual participants, rather than ‘an outsider looking in’. But no matter how noble its intentions, the film fails as a history lesson and a stand-alone drama.

The film, in brief, concerns a very tricky romantic relationship that develops between a conflicted Serbian soldier (Goran Kostic) and a young Bosnian woman (Zana Marjanovic) who ends up living in captivity under his watch during the civil strife. While somewhat manufactured controversy erupted last year over rumors that Jolie’s script involved a woman falling in love with her rapist, the actual movie is both more and less complicated. While Danijel is not a rapist, he and Ajla have not a prior romantic relationship but a mere flirtation before war sets in. As a result, the relationship truly does develop while Ajla is Danijel’s prisoner. Does Ajla truly fall for Danijel, or is she merely pretending to love him for his protection and/or grateful for his protection to the point of affection? The film never outright states Ajla’s feelings on the subject, which is actually impressive. So while the film may indeed draw controversy for its would-be romance, Jolie admirably doesn’t tell the audience how to feel about this most unusual love story. Their relationship is presented in a coldly objective fashion, and most of their sex scenes are film in the same quasi-static detail as the several rape sequences throughout the film. At times, it seems like Jolie is crafting a romance more suited to a stereotypical Pedro Almodóvar picture. Jolie doesn’t tell the audience whether to embrace or be repelled by the Beauty and the Beast meets Schindler’s List overtones, but the lack of at least a touch of melodrama renders large chunks of the film as rather lifeless.

Speaking of rape scenes, the picture is rather unflinching in depicting the horrors of this specific conflict. Within the first reel, we’ve witnessed a machine-gun massacre of civilian men and a more-or-less onscreen rape of a random female captive. It sets the tone for what’s to come, as the violence that occurs to and around Ajla is presented with striking cold and brutal detail. But the film cheats just a little by having Danijel step aside for most of the atrocities, allowing Kostic’s tortured soldier to (mostly) not directly shed innocent blood or commit sexual assaults even while the men he commands do so with impunity. The film also gives him a number of self-congratulatory monologues he basically represents ‘the conflicted soldier’ or ‘the moral man given power in immoral times’. This would be less obnoxious if he were not the only conflicted oppressor, but with the exception of one soldier who has one moment discussing his pregnant wife, the majority of Bosnian soldiers are presented without shadings.

But while the central love affair flirts with genuine kinkiness that belies its alleged intentions as ‘a very important motion picture’, the need to be a somewhat all-encompassing saga of the genocide becomes the film’s undoing. Much of the first half of the film is taken up by what can only be called educational lectures, as characters state the causes of the war, the nature of the conflict, the hardships faced on the victims, and the lack of international help. We also get much monologuing that explicitly explains why the oppressors felt they had the moral right to wipe out another group of people, much of it from the mouth of Rade Serbedzija. Serbedziga does get one solid scene late in the film where he is able to deliver character exposition while also creating tension and dread, but most of his limited screen-time is wasted. I do not know how much of the clunky dialogue emanates from translation issues (the script was written by Jolie, translated into Bosnian, and then translated for us into English subtitles), but we have characters engaging in conversations that feel like bullet-points of what the audience should know about the Bosnian war. Furthermore, despite the time given over to its educational pursuits, the film leaves the viewer about as informed about the conflict as they would be after spending five minutes on Wikipedia.

Despite the film’s fine intentions and adult treatment of adult subject matter, In the Land of Blood and Honey doesn’t quite work as a compelling piece of drama. It strains itself to present educational information while being less informative than it thinks, while it delivers a core narrative that sacrifices audience engagement for an otherwise welcome objectivity. It is well acted and makes the most of its $15 million budget (the exterior moments are as large-scale as the story demands). Angelina Jolie deserves plaudits for financing much of the movie herself, and for tackling something truly challenging and personal for her sure-to-be-scrutinized writing and directorial debut. But it pains me to say that the film doesn’t work as either entertainment or education. It is a noble effort, but it is not quite a good movie.

To read more go to Mendelson’s Memo

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  • December 19, 2011 | Permalink |

    so oscar or razzie ?

  • December 19, 2011 | Permalink |

    I’ll take the opinion of the victims over a glorified video store’s opinion anyday

  • December 19, 2011 | Permalink |

    I’ll still check it out. I expect it to be an exercise in solipsism because that’s Angie. She’s no stranger to exhibitionism, especially that of the D/S sado-massochistic sort. I expect it to be just that set during the Bosnian War.

  • December 20, 2011 | Permalink |

    Mr. Mendelson’s review is a classic case of comments from the ‘peanut gallery’.

    ..I’ve been teary-eyed every time I’ve heard the actors in Angelina’s film talk about their roles, the responsibility they felt to portray the characters truthfully, and its affect on them. They’ve also spoken about how grateful they are to Angelina for giving them ‘a voice’, and for their being able to re-visit this painful issue in hopes of creating a dialogue, and hopefully, preventing it from happening ever again.

    It’s very timely in light of the rapes/war in Congo, and the conflicts which have caused refugees all around the world.

    ..That said, I think a reviewer who’s job it is to pick apart a film misses the overall importance and context of the films affect on our psyche as an audience. I’m overwhelmed by my empathy for the cast, impressed with Angelina’s passion/knowledge of the subject, and startled my suddenly strong opposition to war and its affect on human beings, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. And for that reason, this film is FAR FROM A FAILURE!

    ..Simply having Ms. Jolie as a spokesperson makes this project a winner before it even left the gate. So congrats to the cast/crew of ITLOBAH! To the Cast: Please receive reviews as you would from those who complain about the flies while sitting amongst a field of beautiful lilies…

  • December 22, 2011 | Permalink |

    I am and have been looking forward to seeing this movie. I hope it plays in my area when it goes wide. It is amazing to me that the critics that are not totally supportive of this film are the same ones that are supportive of similar themed films done by male directors.

    I too will take the opinions of the women and men that have lived through this conflict as my gauge. They have applauded her efforts and spoke of how authentic the film is. Perhaps you have to have lived through this or know those that have to fully appreciate and understand it’s importance to the audience

    I am proud that Angie took this on. And as she said the people that the movie represents have spoken in such a positive way.. to me they are the only critics worth listening too.

  • January 7, 2012 | Permalink |

    A propaganda film . The numbers mentioned in the film about how many women were raped in the war has been discredited a long time ago . According to ICTY , the number of muslim civilians killed in the war is 25,500 and the number of Serb civilians killed was 7,500 . The number of Serbs was higher ( 16,700 ) in a 2005 report but for some reason they lowered it .

    The rest of the casualties were soldiers of course . Muslims fought Croats and Muslims even fought Muslims . Serbs definitely didn’t cause or do everything . The scenes in this movie are just intended to shock you and to exploit the suffering of real people .

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