Angelina Jolie’s debut In the Land of Blood and Honey is a complicated film about a difficult time in our not so distant past. It is a moving testament to identity and differences, as much agitprop as historical impressionism that ultimately lives and breathes deeper still and perhaps after all as a love story. If you’re only repulsed or distanced by the atrocities depicted in the film, or if it is Jolie you’ve made your mind about, you’ll never get anywhere near the happenstance of passion and awful truth captured in a film about the impossibility of light in the darkest places. This film is a journey of moments made and lost in the time and space of conflict, about what was real and made forgotten and what is possible. Jolie brazenly carves from recent memory the beating heart of war-torn love in the fleeting solidarity of people caught in seconds that last a life time.
The strength of Jolie’s film comes from her willingness to portray the volatility of sex and violence as character rather than plot or action alone. She avoids absolutes and definitions of love and war in order to focus on two people caught in the divide. The characters live from moment to moment in a constant state of internal and external conflict that is as much about their struggle to survive as it is their sense of identity and drive to face the consequences of their feelings. Films like this can only fully be appreciated by watching them. There is no easy way into stories of war and violence, no way to prepare you for senseless violence and indecency that is as difficult to imagine as to see realized. The true value in difficult films is knowing the benefit of the experience and allowing it in, embracing the uplift or escape, to know how painfully honest emotions can reward us after all. The beauty of truthful performances can take us on journeys similar to ones we’ve taken ourselves, places we’ve been or understand or not at all, knowing them through the power of cinema shows us the triumph of the will, the determination of the soul and the power of imagination to take us places we’ve only just begun.
In The Land of Blood and Honey takes place in Sarajevo at the beginning of the Bosnian War. Within minutes after finding Danijel (Goran Kostic) a police officer and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) meeting for the first time the war literally falls down on top of them, shattering everything they were or will ever be again. They laugh like strangers drawn to one another, impervious to their differences, their opposing ideologies, religion and whatever differences have been forced upon them. When war happens as it always does in times of such uncertainty, they are consumed by it and then thrown together they find a way to make the moments matter and that is perhaps all any film can hope for – to capture seconds so well, the building blocks of relationships and dreams, the places our forever comes from. Jolie captures the fleeting seconds as though she has been doing it her whole life, and maybe she has, this time from behind the camera. The film is a love story after all, informed as much as wounded by Jolie’s own research that included casting actors who were from the very places depicted in the movie. The actors speak candidly about their own experiences of the war in the behind the scenes materials and in interviews and it is present in the film. Where critics and audiences found fault in the film is no surprise as all films that set out to capture such intense emotions will be uncomfortable to write about. I found it difficult to pull myself away even at the height of the violence, drawn to the truth of such beauty and horror so well captured as to first live in the emotions of it then the experience. I thought of another difficult film that is equally as troubling, fulfilling and truthful – The Stoning of Soraya M., and I reviewed that one here.
Of course love is complicated as we know it to be, immeasurable and flawed and impossible. The fact that it even exists at all in a film saturated with violence and death suggests its resilience, its stubbornness to be changed by us even as it changes us. This film shows us that love exists irrespective of time, place and identity. You cannot yell at love and make it what you will. You cannot take love, change it so it fits your needs and use it like a paint brush to fix generational, cultural, religious and gender differences. Love cannot make the wrong OK any more than it can save children from the inscrutable boots of war or protect women who should never need such protection. What love can do is prove the value of togetherness against every reason to be apart. The bond that is made from two people, however fleeting, however doomed to tragedy is what we find in the film even if we cannot immediately describe it. Angelina Jolie sets out to uncover the fledgling blossoms of love buried in bomb craters and blood, hidden from everything but itself and the knowledge that love is an impossible thing that fights everything and itself to be free even though it cannot exist by itself. Jolie’s film is about two people who find one another in the most unimaginable of circumstances, desperate to know love but end up imprisoned by it and separated with different ideas about how to make it last forever.
The fact that Angelina Jolie would eventually branch out to write and direct is hardly a surprise given her iconic father Jon Voight and the incredibly diverse films she’s been a part of. What is perhaps most surprising about this film is how clear in vision it is and well crafted, how articulate and commanding the direction that is a rarity among first time filmmakers. There’s an interesting behind the scenes featurette that reveals the extent of Jolie’s research, passion for the project and dedication to bring this film together. What is most effective about her film is the importance she places on specificity and calamity, in the power of emotional honesty and truthful performances and her unflinching examination of our sense of identity, understanding and history.