Friday, June 22, 2012

In the Land of Blood and Honey

Wartime drama In the Land of Blood and Honey is a brave and and unexpected choice for Angelina Jolie's directorial debut.

Set during the 1990s Bosnian War, the film tells of a love story that blossoms between a Bosnian Serb forces captain Danijel (Goran Kostic) and a Bosnian Muslim artist Ajla (Zana Marjanovic). The two meet in secret, as she is a prisoner at a camp that he runs. But as the ethnic conflict drags on, the two find each other on different sides.

To ensure authenticity, Jolie chose a cast of relatively unknown, local actors who had lived through the war. This move has rewarded Jolie handsomely. With so much emotional depth brought to their roles, it is difficult to find fault with their acting.

Danijel is portrayed as a man torn between conflicting desires. A pacifist at heart, he is sickened by the senseless killing of civilians. Yet his father, a prominent Serbian general Nebojsa (Rade Serbedzija), has taught him to view Muslim Bosniaks with contempt. Kostic handles the challenging role convincingly. At times, he displays an moving tenderness towards Ajla, which transforms into a seething rage when angered. Veering between cynicism and idealism, peace and violence, loyalty and suspicion, Danijel is a fascinating, richly complex character of much pathos.

Like Danijel, Ajla has an equally demanding role, and she struggles with the guilt of having consorted with the enemy. However, Ajla's characterization is often constrained by the script. Yet, with what little dialogue she is given, Marjanovic is a captivating actress. In one scene, she asks, her large eyes expressive, a slight tremor in her voice, “Are we so terrible that we should be exterminated?”

The somewhat perverse and masochistic love story between captor and prisoner that emerges is deeply engrossing. In comparison, the rest of the film sags, as other characters like Ajla's sister, Lejla (Vanesa Glodjo), are severely under-drawn. Though Serbedzija gives a quietly chilling performance as a self-righteous general obsessed with ethnic cleansing, he is given too little screen-time. Given a more nuanced portrayal of these characters, it might have have added an additional layer to the film. To Jolie's credit, she strives to avoid the usual villain stereotype, and instead attempts to explain the Serbs' motives for prolonging the war.

There is no easy way to convey such a grim subject matter. Spanning five years, the war takes place in stark, wintry landscapes littered with the remnants of bombed buildings, debris and corpses. The lovers' clandestine meetings are lengthy, with heavy overtones, and are punctuated with swift acts of violence, both physical and psychological. Women are systematically raped in excruciatingly graphic detail, bombs are dropped indiscriminately, and mass executions are carried out in military precision. The initial effect is jarring, but becomes this pattern becomes a tad repetitive later on.

Jolie has skillfully dramatized the atrocities and suffering of the Bosnian war. No one is spared from the monstrous acts, which are presented in unflinching detail. For instance, rape is used as a tool for the Serb solidiers to assert their superiority. It is distressing, to say the least. Women are presented as powerless and voiceless, and there are shocking images of the women's bloodied thighs and lifeless eyes.

Jolie also makes her criticism of the UN's lack of intervention clearly felt. In one telling example, at the museum, where Ajla points out the empty spaces in a painting, saying, “It's the choice not to do something.”

No one can doubt Jolie's ability to push her political message about the evils of war. But this is where she falls short. Unlike Roman Polanski's similarly genocide-themed The Pianist (2002), she fails to weave together a truly powerful and convincing story.

Nevertheless, her efforts are laudable. She has demonstrated great care in crafting each scene, and in bringing out the best in each actor. Already, it has earned her a Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Film. With a more sensitive touch to the plot and consistent characterization, Jolie could have told a more haunting and poignant story. 

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