More than a decade after filmmakers from the former Yugoslavia began depicting that country's savage early-'90s dissolution, two Western women directors have turned to the subject.
Both Juanita Wilson's As If I Am Not There, Ireland's entry for this year's best foreign-film Oscar, and In the Land of Blood and Honey, from actress-activist Angelina Jolie, focus on Bosnian women who were systematically raped by Serbian soldiers. Guess which one is the love story.
That would be In the Land of Blood and Honey, of course. Jolie may be a maverick, but she's still Hollywood enough to lace her horrific tale with some romance. It's a classic strategy, but this movie isn't exactly Romeo and Juliet. While Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and Danijel (Goran Kostic) are star-crossed lovers, they also have another relationship: captive and captor.
The movie, which takes its title from an alleged etymology for "Balkan," begins with what seems to be Ajla and Danijel's first date. She's an aspiring Bosnian painter who lives with her older sister and infant nephew; he's a cop whose father, we soon learn, is a hard-line Serbian nationalist.
As the couple dance, their flirtation is interrupted by a bomb. The war has begun, and soon Ajla will be taken to a women's concentration camp. The younger prisoners are repeatedly raped, but Ajla is spared by Danijel, now an officer in the Serbian army. He protects her, and they become lovers — not that Ajla has much choice.
When Danijel is reassigned, Ajla is at risk. She eventually escapes, finding refuge with Bosnians in hiding. This time, Danijel seeks her out, installing her as his "personal painter." It's not a bad gig, at least compared with what's happening to other Bosnians. Then Danijel's father hears about the arrangement.
Nebojsa (Rade Serbedzija, the go-to actor for this sort of role) visits Ajla, explaining his hatred of Bosnians in a speech that won't be very helpful to moviegoers who haven't studied the Balkans — especially the period when Nazi-allied Croatian fascists brutalized Serbians. Nebojsa's blustering history lesson, it turns out, is just the first of his punishments.
Punctuated by random acts of cruelty, and portraying a romance that cannot end well, In the Land of Blood and Honey moves a long way from the Lara Croft franchise, or even Jolie's first venture into social-issues cinema — 2003's Beyond Borders. It's a serious movie and a well-made one, fluidly shot and edited. Gabriel Yared's music is no more overbearing than the usual Hollywood score, and the director, as might be expected, elicits nuanced performances.
There's only so much the actors can do, however, with Jolie's script. Ajla and Danijel's relationship is more symbolic than tenable, and their personalities are only lightly sketched. She's just a pretty victim; he's tormented, but more loudly than revealingly.
There are too many speeches in which Serbs essentially indict themselves, or discuss the non-intervention of the U.S. and E.U. in language that's clearly meant for the audience, not for each other. And the final developments shift from realism to melodrama.
Jolie has already taken a lot of flak for the movie, having been accused of plagiarizing parts of the story and of producing a vanity project. The latter charge, at least, is unfair. Jolie proves herself as a director, and the film is defiantly uncommercial, complete with subtitled dialogue. But In the Land of Blood and Honey is far from the best movie on this subject made since the war ended — or even this year. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.