In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011): Angelina Jolie’s Feature Directing Debut, Cross-Cultural Love Story

Movie star Angelina Jolie acquits herself more honorably as a director than a writer in her feature debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, a cross-cultural love story sets against the contexts of the brutal Bosnian, which tore the Balkan region apart in the 1990s.

The good news is the “In the Land” is not a vanity project from a glamorous movie star, who could have chosen other, perhaps easier subjects to tackle. Moreover, going for authenticity, she has cast the film with local actors and has honored their languages and subcultures.

The film was also shot in English, a convention that had prevailed in the early 1930s, when foreign stars such as Marlene Dietrich made movies, such as “The Blue Angel.”

The bad news is that “In the Land” far outreaches Jolie’s talents and skills as a filmmaker (at least at this phase). While visually the movie does not look like a first work, narratively and dramatically, it suffers from some serious weaknesses.

For starters, “In the Land” is an intimate drama, a two-handler as we used to say in Variety, trying to pass as a socio-political message-oriented epic. Jolie, who also wrote the screenplay has constructed two characters while failing to include any significant secondary roles, or secondary sub-plots, which would have enriched what comes across as an ultra-simplistic Romeo-and Juliet tale.

In the first scene, we meet the couple, Danijel (Goran Kostić) and Ajla (pronounced Ayla) (Zana Marjanović), two Bosnians from different sides of the ethnic and cultural divide.

Before the war, Danijel, a Bosnian Serb police officer, and Ajla, a Bosnian Muslim artist, enjoy each other’s company, making love, dancing and laughing.

However, their relationship is drastically changed, when violence engulfs the region, positing them on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Using a superficial Freudian psychology, and a contrived plot, Jolie depicts Danijel as a “Papa’s Boy,” a fearful boy serving under his macho father, General Nebojsa Vukojevich (Rade Šerbedžija), a rigid, by-the-book officer in the Bosnian Serb Army.

After a brief separation, the lovers meet again when Ajla is mercilessly removed from the apartment she shares with her sister, Lejla (Vanesa Glodjo), and Lejla’s infant child by troops, which serve under Danijel’s command.

From that point on, the melodrama becomes contrived, with a plot that’s determined by abrupt and arbitrary changes, which manifest themselves in the emotional and sexual relationship of the duo, who still desire each other.

Predictably, as the conflict takes hold of their lives, their relationship changes, their motives and connection to one another become more tenuous and ambiguous and their allegiances grow uncertain.

The sex scenes, I think unintentionally, send mixed signals. They are both erotic and manipulative, sensual and exploitational (some have a touch of S&M), more titillating than genuinely compelling. Danjiel calls Ajla slut, then a traitor, smacks and pushes her around before succumbing to her appeal.

Among many other activities, Jolie has been a political activist, championing various honorable causes. In the press notes, Jolie states courageously and heroically: “I wanted to make a film that would express, in an artistic way, my frustrations with the international community’s failure to intervene in conflicts in a timely and effective manner. I also wanted to explore and understand the Bosnian War, as well as broader issues such as women in conflict, sexual violence, accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the challenge of reconciliation. It was the deadliest war in Europe since World War II, but sometimes people forget the terrible violence that happened in our time, in our generation, to our generation.”

Thus, I don’t doubt the honesty and seriousness of her intention in calling attention to atrocities, which for a long time, were all but ignored by the Western world, including the U.S. government and the U.N., which in this film comes across as both ineffective and ineffectual.

While the Jolie’s explicit aim is to portray the incredibly emotional, moral and physical toll which the war takes on innocent individuals, as well as the consequences that derive from the lack of will (and real power) to intervene in a conflict-ridden society, the execution leaves much to be desired.

There is more information and more substance in the film’s last title cards, than in the text itself, suggesting that Jolie the writer could not dramatize and integrate effectively the broader conflict into the narrative.