By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
There’s a lot more blood than honey in In The Land of Blood and Honey.
And that’s as it should be, given that this brutal drama about genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia’s civil war in the early 1990s is often difficult to watch, but is never less than powerfully intense.
It marks the impressive writing-directing debut of actress and activist Angelina Jolie, who opens with a title card that explains that, prior to the war that is about to be depicted, Muslims, Serbs, and Croats lived in harmony in the former Yugoslavia.
This grim, bittersweet love story in the midst of a tragic and savage war is set in the Balkans, a name made up of the Turkish words kan and bal, meaning “blood” and “honey,” respectively — thus the title.
Goran Kostic plays Christian Serb Danijel, a Yugoslav policeman and reluctant captain in his father’s army who meets Ajla, a delicate Muslim artist played by Zana Marjanovic.
Just as their romantic relationship ignites, a bomb is detonated in the Sarajevo nightclub where they are dancing, and they are interrupted by the war as violence breaks out between ethnic and religious groups within their newly divided world.
Because Danijel is the head of the prison camp where Ajla is held captive, and because he is able to intervene and spare her when she is about to be raped, she becomes his prisoner (his personal property, as it were) during the bloody, barbaric war, which allows him to protect, exploit, and romance her simultaneously and ambiguously as their perverse love affair plays itself out.
But he struggles to keep all this from his militant, adamant, and bloodthirsty father, a general in the rebel army played by the only familiar actor in the cast, Rade Serbedzija, whose ultra-nationalist politics and anti-Muslim bigotry are unshakeable.
By implication, Jolie asks why Western intervention took so long during such a devastating Eastern tragedy. She never shrinks from the atrocities committed, especially the horrendous and horrific abuse of women. (So many thousands of rapes were committed that, for the first time, the act was prosecuted under international law as a crime against humanity.)
In the Land of Blood and Honey includes just enough matter-of-fact violence — sometimes recalling the similar approach employed by Steven Spielberg in Schindler’s List, which is the highest of compliments — so that it shocks and disturbs us without feeling prurient or exploitative and without rendering us numb to its offensive power.
Her two leads are fine indeed, especially Marjanovic, who does most of the emotional heavy lifting and gives a beautifully understated but adroitly nuanced performance as the society around her unravels and then disappears, and death becomes the new way of life.
Jolie, who also co-produced, uses an all-Bosnian cast. But she shot two versions — one in English, one in Serbo-Croatian — and her account of this only-vaguely-understood war seems highly authentic and credible, a portrait of love between captor and captive, but one of mutual self-preservation as well.
This defiantly downbeat drama certainly has an uphill commercial climb ahead of it, but it undertakes that journey as an impressive labor-of-love achievement by a superstar who has used her fame to help bring this serious-minded project to the marketplace. The celebrity remains a celebrity, to be sure, but is now a filmmaker as well.
So we’ll battle 3 stars out of 4 for a melancholy drama about the Bosnian War that is also a star-crossed romantic tragedy.
In In the Land of Blood and Honey, we learn that one of our highest-profile actresses and stars is, it turns out, also highly skilled behind the camera.