Angelina Jolie directing a hard-hitting drama about the Balkan war of the mid-1990s? The words "worthy", "dull" and "vanity project" come to mind. "Worthy" it most certainly is, but "dull" should be replaced with "harrowing", and there is nothing remotely vain about In the Land of Blood and Honey. Ms. Jolie's clout may have helped her get the film off the ground, but this was never about her; more about honouring the work she has been doing as a humanitarian, and using her leverage to tell a story that, sadly, most people won't want to see. Not entirely her fault: as modern war has grown less clear-cut by the day, there can no longer be black-and-white, easy-to-follow war stories and heroes as there used to be. And the particular grimness of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, literally pitting neighbour against neighbour and turning prosperous cities into war zones practically overnight, makes it even harder.

     That is the reason why In the Land of Blood and Honey's refusal to openly take sides has not surprisingly reawakened tensions, since Ms. Jolie is deliberately blurring things through her tale of push-and-pull attraction between Muslim Bosnian Ajla (Zana Marjanović) and Serbian officer Danjel (Goran Kostić). They almost were lovers before war broke out and threw them on opposite sides, and now she finds herself imprisoned at his mercy, but unsure of the depth of his love and desire to protect her. Shifting her viewpoint from one to the other, painting Danjel as a man bound by family ties he finds hard to turn back on and Ajla as a woman who has nothing left to lose, Ms. Jolie constructs her script as a series of episodes that make their points forcefully but don't necessarily flow organically. The temptation of cheap melodrama or of an overarching, predictable narrative that will make the grimness palatable to audiences never goes away, so all the more credit to her for keeping up the film's tempo and getting excellent performances from her native cast (especially from Mr. Kostić, who has a tougher character arc to go through), even if the film's rushed ending unfortunately throws away the patience with which Ms. Jolie spent most of her leisurely running time setting up characters and situations.

     But, while this is by no means a masterpiece and it is doubtful that it will find an audience beyond those interested in the subject, In the Land of Blood and Honey is certainly not the throwaway vanity project many were predicting, revealing an actress that knows very well what she wants to do behind the camera and - much like the characters she has portrayed through her career - gets it done.

Zana Marjanović, Goran Kostić; Branko Djurić, Vanesa Glodjo, Nikola Djurićko; Rade Šerbedžija.
     Director/writer, Angelina Jolie; cinematography, Dean Semler (colour, Panavision widescreen); music, Gabriel Yared; designer, Jon Hutman; costumes, Gabriele Binder; editor, Patricia Rommel; producers, Ms. Jolie, Graham King, Tim Headington, Tim Moore (GK Films), USA, 2011, 127 minutes.
     Screened: screener DVD, Lisbon, April 2nd 2012. 


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