Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 03, 2012 6:20 pm 
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Crazy love in a crazy time

In the Land of Blood and Honey is an impressively ambitious effort by Angelina Jolie, who wrote, directed, and co-produced, proving again her penchant for issue pictures of passionate intensity (and for the issues themselves). This is a tough watch -- a harrowing experience and 127 relentless minutes long, and in Bosnian with subtitles -- but much is done right. The acting is good. The cinematography by Dean Semler is beautiful. In sunlit exteriors the colors are sometimes ravishing; so are some interiors of Muslim women. It's fair to say Jolie shows her directing chops are up, but her writing ones, not so much. We are in Bosnia in the early Nineties and we watch a disturbing, doomed love affair play out between a Muslim woman artist and a Serbian officer, son of a general, against an even more disturbing and horrible depiction of the siege of Sarajevo. Events are seen from viewpoints of both the Bosnian victims and the Serbian perpetrators -- with plenty of hints of how close people on the two sides are, neighbors, schoolmates, clients, even friends, or just acquaintances, as Ajla and Danijal were before the war began. But about the painful love affair and the hideous ethnic atrocities that accompany it, something is not right in the depiction or the interrelationship.

To begin with it's not certain that ultimately the "story," despite it's "unflinching" aspects, is really clear. Jolie is no Alain Resnais and this is no Hiroshima Mon Amour. The love story is off kilter and the continually horrifying context wrenches it further out of shape. Though they are both compelling separately, I'm never quite convinced that the relationship between the gaunt, haunted Danijel (Goran Kostić) and the soulful, restrained Ajla (Zana Marjanović) ever makes sense. (Maybe it shouldn't be seen up so close but recalled indirectly, as the German-French one is in Resnais' film. ) And to take in this star-crossed, dangerous relationship in a constant context of horror is asking a little too much of any audience. One staggers out, shell-shocked but unenlightened. There has been no catharsis. And what one has learned about Bosnia is intense, but still sketchy. Occasional English language radio news excerpts, telegraphing the involvement of the UN forces and then Clinton's bombing, as well as lectures by a father to his son about the history of the ethnic resentments, feel superficial and tacked-on.

There are excellent smaller roles, notably as Nebojsa, Danijel's general father, frighteningly convinced that massacring Bosnian Muslims is a good thing, a scary and solid performance, Rade Serbedzija is the kind of performer who grabs the movie and gives it a shake every time his comes on screen, even when he's lecturing us. A film could have been made simply out of the relationship of father and son. We remember Vanessa Glodjo as Ajla's sister Lejla, whom she lives with, and whose terrible loss she later shares. We remember the handsome young Tarik (Boris Ler), who befriends Ajla when she is on the run. Does he help her or betray her? His is an interesting character, one of various narrative sub-strands left dangling when the film starts focusing on Ajla as Danijel's pet, or portraitist, or prisoner, or whore in the castle he and his men occupy.

Who is Danijel? Why does he glom onto Ajla? How can he, psychologically or practically, pursue a love affair with one of the people his people are systematically exterminating? What are Ajla's feelings? She can't ever really show them, can she? We are watching a sham. It won't wash. Neither can we understand Danijel's seeming command of a body of men, some of whom are suspicious of him, and his ability simultaneously to fear and betray his frightening father. Ajla herself declares her own political background a little too late. Saving it till the end isn't any help.

And yet it remains true that In the Land of Blood and Honey is a film that shows great maturity and boldness in its conception. Jolie is a little betrayed by her own ambition. It's all there. The spark of the love affair at a club when Ajla and Danijel meet just before the war breaks out, and the audacious stroke of the bomb at the club is nicely timed. From the rape in front of a group of other women when Ajla is taken away and they are all stripped of their possessions, Jolie is ruthlessly frank in her depiction of a woman's point of view of the horrors of war. She flinches at nothing. But if she had come at things more subtly and crab-wise, she might have been able to make the perplexing and delicate matter of the affair more understandable. And, incidentally, she might have made a movie that was less punishing and that more people would want to watch.

In the Land of Blood and Honey went into limited US release December 23, 2011 and was screened for this review at AMC Loews 19th St. East 6 in New York City January 3, 2012.

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