The movie begins with a young Muslim woman named Aja (Zana Marjanovic), waving goodbye to her sister (and small baby niece). She's going out on a first date with Danijel (Goran Kostic). We get glimpses of their first date, which seems incredibly romantic. While slow dancing on the dance floor, though, her head pressed against his chest, a bomb goes off, destroying the dance floor and killing and injuring many. They haven't even kissed yet, and the couple has already shared a traumatic experience.
We then jump ahead several months, when Serbian troops enter Aja's home, extracting her and her sister. It's after we're forced to watch a brutal rape by another officer, that it's Aja's turn for punishment. As she's pushed down, a soldier emerges from the background. It's Danijel. "I'll take this one," he says. But then he gets a look at the woman, and realizes it's Aja and shoos her away. Thus our central conflict is born: a Serbian officer in love with one of his Muslim prisoners. If that doesn't spell "doomed romance," we don't know what does.
But it's really the love story that we're asked to invest in, not the three-year-long campaign of cruelty, and Jolie does an admirable job of showing these two characters, who barely knew each other before the conflict, falling in love under the most unimaginable circumstances. Jolie brings her unblinking eye into the bedroom, with some refreshingly honest sex scenes. And you do begin to root for the characters to make it through, no matter how unlikely that seems.
As the story progresses, we also get glimpses of what was happening with the war, with President Clinton threatening action and Red Cross and UN envoys being deployed to the region. In one harrowing scene that amazingly doesn't feel much like a Hollywood action movie, a Red Cross truck, attempting to administer aid, is blown apart by a Serbian rocket attack. In a flash you think about not only the lives that were lost in the truck but also how many potential lives could have been saved, too, had it been allowed to continue.
But, for the most part, "In the Land of Blood and Honey" is an admirable film. Jolie, as a first-time writer/director, shows a respectable amount of focus and artistry (Gabriel Yared's score and Dean Semler's dusty, battle scarred photography are outstanding), dramatizing the events with a romantic edge that never trivializes the actual history or turns anything into a melodrama. In a weird way, it's reminiscent of "The Night Porter," in its depiction of a deeply conflicted sexual relationship between two ideological opposites, except that "In the Land of Blood and Honey" is far less kinky and free of any traces of camp, and it's a testament to the deeply nuanced and heartfelt performances by Marjanovic and Kostic that the relationship makes any sense at all. It's their palpable connection, and the fact that both actors lived through that horrible time, that makes the movie live.
Jolie wisely chose these actors based on their nationality and ability, and it would have been very easy, given her clout, to call up her buddies and have them pretend to be Bosnians. Instead, she insisted on the real deal, and it has benefitted the movie immensely. And while the filmmaking is occasionally inelegant, Jolie will certainly earn points for going out on a limb and depicting the atrocities of this conflict honestly. It will probably be too brutal for most to stomach, but those that do will witness an assured screen debut from a woman who clearly has more than just on-screen talents. [B]