‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’: The beast in me

December 22, 2011

You would think that, after World War II, Europe had seen all of the genocide it could stomach for a century or so. But, no, here came the Serbs in the early 1990s, with their ethnic cleansing and wholesale butchery and rape of the Bosniak and Muslim population.

There have been very few films that truly dealt with the subject, at least that have been released in the United States. Milcho Manchevski’s “Before the Rain” (1994), Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome to Sarajevo” (1997) and Danis Tanovic’s “No Man’s Land” (2001) are among the best – and this year’s “The Whistleblower.” There have been several about the uncomfortable aftermath of Serbian brutality and cruelty, but the history itself remains almost an afterthought.

Angelina Jolie’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey” takes a tough look at the effects of that war as it was happening. Here is a populace that can’t quite believe that, in the era of satellite transmission and the 24-hour-cable-news culture, the world will sit idly by and let this kind of slaughter go on unchallenged (which it mostly did).

Jolie isn’t telling a “Romeo and Juliet” story here, though the lovers at the center of her story hail from opposite sides of the conflict in Sarajevo. Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) is an artist, out on a first date with Danijel (Goran Kostic) – or maybe it’s a second. There’s obviously a spark there, feelings or feelings about feelings.

They’re dancing close in a nightclub when a bomb goes off, destroying the club and killing several people – and the next thing we see, the war is on and the Serbs are rounding up the Bosniaks. Ajla is part of a group of women that has been gathered and taken away to be laborers and sex objects for the Serb army as it tries to take over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But even as she is pulled out of a lineup by a soldier for rape, she is rescued by Danijel, the captain of this particular group of soldiers (and the son of a Serbian general, played by a menacing Rade Serbedzija). He claims her as his own in front of the soldiers and makes her his consort – then protects her, even as his men savage the rest of the women.

He helps her find an escape from the camp – then rescues her again when she is recaptured. But when he ensconces her in a private jail cell to which only he has the key, the word spreads to his father that Danijel has gone soft on an enemy.

As Jolie builds this tense story of a captive’s seemingly untenable relationship with her captor, she raises a crucial issue: What are you willing to do to survive? What can you live with? Where do your loyalties ultimately lie?

It becomes tangled and confused for both Danijel and Ajla, each betraying some part of their allegiance to their own group – and each wondering when the other person will commit what seems like an inevitable act of betrayal.

Jolie’s film is brutal and violent, without being sensationalistic. It remains a sore subject, because the crimes were so atrocious and the remorse for them so minimal. Jolie’s point is to remind us that these were shameful acts that twisted people’s values.

Marjanovic, as Ajla, has a sensitive quality – hey, she’s an artist – but also a toughness and resignation about the vicious physical attacks she can’t completely elude. Kostic finds the painful conflict within Danijel between his natural instincts of compassion and the brutal pragmatism his father, the general, demands of him.

“In the Land of Blood and Honey” is a painful, gripping story of the extremes of the survival instinct, in the face of human indifference. It’s a provocative drama that will fuel endless post-screening discussions.

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