The heavy-handed touch of Angelina Jolie's directorial debut "In the Land of Blood and Honey" is evident right from the start, when a bomb explodes in a nightclub before our main characters, out on a date, have even shared a word.
Throughout the film, Jolie puts politics ahead of story and character, blatantly imposing a message — an altruist message, but a message nonetheless — on the film. And the result is a movie whose narrative feels like a fictionalized United Nations presentation.
Certainly, Jolie's bluntness is justifiable. The film, in Bosnian with subtitles, is about the Bosnian War of the early 1990s and the atrocities of genocide that came with it, conducted by the Bosnian Serb Army in an ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims.
"In the Land of Blood and Honey" exists as a caution to international inaction, to highlight the horror that transpired in the years before NATO airstrikes and international pressure brought an end to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Much of it is horrifying to watch. What Jolie depicts on camera (random murder, abysmal rape) is scarcely any less ugly than what transpires just off-screen (mass murder, a slaughtered baby).
In the midst of this is the story of a hesitant, uncertain love between a Bosnian Muslim artist, Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), and a Serbian police officer turned military captain, Danijel (Goran Kostic). They are on opposite sides of the conflict, but the coincidences of Ajla's imprisonment keep her in Danijel's orbit.
Danijel objects to the war, and his protection of Ajla compromises his stature among his men. But the ravages of war also push him toward less nuanced sympathies.
Jolie, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn't really expand the movie beyond the lovers and it suffers as a result. There is Ajla's sister (Vanesa Glodjo), who lives underground, and Danijel's cruel father, Gen. Nebojsa Vukojevich (Rade Serbedzija, in the film's best performance), who expresses the historical prejudices underlying the war.
It's easy to criticize Jolie for her showy humanitarianism or to be skeptical of such a glamorous actress trying to direct. Already, she has been something of a lightning rod, accused of plagiarizing the film's story, exploiting the rape victims of the war, vilifying the Serbs and taking advantage of her position as a goodwill ambassador for the UN refugee agency.
But Jolie deserves plenty of credit here. There are far worse things than using one's celebrity to bring attention to the dangers of pacifism in the face of war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
With the exception of a handful of visual missteps (a shot of shadows dancing on the wall, long fades to black), the film is nicely shot (Dean Semler is director of photography) and atmospheric. It particularly benefits from its largely Budapest locales. (Only second unit material was shot in Sarajevo after protests erupted over the movie's portrayal of Serbs.) The cast, mostly Bosnian actors, is largely solid, even when the film's direction is lacking.
But the storytelling is more problematic. There isn't enough context given to the overall conflict, and the love story feels increasingly myopic as the war drags on and the film's ambitions broaden.
Instead of finding a way to dramatize international inaction or pursing answers that might help explain genocide, "In the Land of Blood and Honey" makes its case only in the illustration of extreme, intolerable violence. Yes, there is power in simply showing these acts, but they eventually have a ring of calculation.
They pass without contemplation, with merely a deadening point-making that cuts off dialogue, rather than facilitates it.
"In the Land of Blood and Honey," a FilmDistrict release, is rated R for war violence and atrocities including rape, sexuality nudity and language. In Bosnian with subtitles. Running time: 127 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.