Angelina Jolie's debut film as a writer-director has a cause, vivid characters and a compelling story. An ill-fated romance between Muslim and Serb set against the backdrop of the Bosnian civil war, "In the Land of Blood and Honey" is so involving you may find yourself shouting at the screen for the Muslim heroine (Zana Marjanovic) to make a break for it, abandon her Serb soldier lover (Goran Kostic) and save herself.
But like her heroine, Jolie struggles with when to get out, unable to trim this involving but slow-in-spots political thriller to a faster, more palatable recounting of recent history.
A brief, lyrical prologue recreates Bosnia-Herzegovina just before the war - a quiet land of cafes, clubs, clean streets and seeming tolerance. Ajla (Marjanovic), a painter living with her single-mom sister in Sarajevo, goes on a lovely date with Danijel (Kostic). They slow-dance, they drink, they sing along with the accordion-rock band.
Then BOOM - a bomb blast, dead and wounded club-goers. Danijel, a cop, helps the wounded. Ajla comforts a dying woman.
"Everything's going to be all right," she whispers, a line repeated by the doomed, the delusional and by their murderers throughout the film.
And thus does the civil war begin, the break-up of Yugoslavia, the majority-Muslim region declaring its independence, the armed and intolerant Christan Serb minority slaughtering one and all who would make that happen.
We see uniformed brutes round up every Muslim, carrying out "ethnic cleansing" town by town, apartment block by apartment block. Women are raped, often in front of the other women. Men are hauled off and shot, buried in mass graves. The victims stand in shocked silence, no one daring to speak up - "What are you doing? What kind of soldier does this? What kind of man does this?"
Ajla is captured, but she discovers she has a protector. Danijel is a captain, the son of a general (Rade Serbedzija). He can't be too obvious about it among his men, but he still has a shred of humanity left, one awakened by seeing Ajla. He keeps her alive. He resists sniping at civilians, indiscriminately. He seems to want credit for this from Ajla, something she's slow in giving.
Marjanovic wonderfully suggests a woman both terrorized and torn. Love, painting, sex with a man of her choosing - those are her means of escape, her way of pretending that the nightmare isn't happening. But every waking moment she can see that it is. Kostic ("The Hunting Party") gives away his inner conflict with every pained look, hidden from his comrades. Jolie lets Danijel's father, played by veteran character actor Serbedzija (he was in a Harry Potter picture, in "X-Men: First Class" and "Shooter"), explain 500 years of ethnic hatred, which Serbedzija does with a deadpan venality that will chill you to the bone. Even monsters feel justified in their crimes.
Jolie's debut film has tender moments of love and horrific bursts of violence, filmed with care and cut together with skill. It's a good movie on a great subject, even if it is well short of a great film.
She has a point of view, a good eye (the combat scenes are on the money) and a passion for the material that informs the story even as it sags. For someone whose career has been built on both talent and exotic good looks, it's great to see that she's been paying attention and that she's willing to put what she's learned to use in a film that no one else would dare make.
IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY
Cast: Zana Marjanovic, Goran Kostic, Rade Serbedzija
Written and directed by Angelina Jolie. A FilmDistrict Release. Running time: 2:07
MPAA Rating: R for war violence and atrocities including rape, sexuality, nudity and language