Dir. Angelina Jolie
(2011, R, 127 min)

Angelina Jolie could hardly have chosen a more ambitious project for her directorial debut. In the Land of Blood and Honey is a large-scale, wartime romance in a foreign language with a lot of moving parts, in both the story and the production, and given the film’s mixed reviews, I’m surprised by how well Jolie acquits herself behind the camera. Though well known for her international humanitarianism, she directs with an even hand and avoids turning the drama into bleeding-heart mush. Where the budding filmmaker could use more refinement is in her writing.

The film is set during the Bosnian War of the 1990s, during which the Serbs systematically evicted and executed Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the beginning, we meet Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and Danijel (Goran Kostic) – a Muslim and a Serb, respectively – who are happily dating, though it’s not clear for how long, when they’re caught in the middle of a bomb blast at a night club. After that, they find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict, Ajla living under the thumb of military aggressors and Danijel working under his soldier father, but fate and screenwriting thrust the lovers back together.

But it’s not only the coincidences that are conspicuous about Jolie’s storytelling. She also front-loads the film with helpful but clunky dialogue passages intended to give us historical context; in one scene, Danijel’s father, Nebojsa (Rade Serbedzija), explains their motives for war, but the conversation sounds like, “I’ll tell you things you already know for the sake of the viewing audience.” And by midpoint, the film loses dramatic momentum as it starts to repeat itself: more than once, Ajla and Danijel reunite, secretly conduct their romance, and sporadically argue about their politics.

Jolie doesn’t fully address how untenable their position is; he protects her under the guise of holding her captive, but spends the rest of his time either hunting her people – might they be her family or friends? – or socializing with his fellow soldiers, who would as soon rape and kill her. Jolie uses their scenes to stage debates about relations between their peoples but doesn’t give us enough insight into their state of mind. How do they justify themselves? Each other? How do their feelings evolve in the midst of the dehumanizing chaos?

But as a director Jolie has strong visual and dramatic instincts. She captures the conditions of the war with grim realism and avoids bombast. Consider a scene in which Ajla’s sister, Lejla (Vanessa Glodjo), makes a horrific discovery, her mouth open in a silent scream; Jolie uses static shots, doesn’t embellish, and lets the tragedy sink in. I would like to see her helm a more polished screenplay by another writer. With more finely tuned narratives, she might eventually become more interesting behind the camera than she is in front of it.