It has been 20 years since the former Yugoslavia exploded into civil war, and it remains news even today: Serb military leader Ratko Mladic was finally arrested last summer—he'd been a fugitive for 15 years—and faces trial at The Hague this year for countless alleged war crimes.
Civil wars are always tragic, and this one took the lives of about 250,000 people over a three-year period, a great many of them noncombatants. Many others were displaced, and conservative estimates list the number of rape victims at 20,000 or more.
In the Land of Blood and Honey is appropriately grim for a movie that loosely depicts the genocide that grew out of the Bosnian war. Thankfully, it is not scene after scene of carnage, although the specter of death is never more than a few minutes away. Such is the reality of civil war playing out in large cities. Ratko Mladic is approximated here by Gen. Nebojša Vukojevi (Rade Šerbedija), a brutal commander who runs overcrowded camps, slaughters Bosnian Muslims (known as Bosniaks) and allows his troops to have their way with the Muslim women they capture. It was later designated as an instrument of war by the International Criminal Tribunal, so it can't be treated as merely background here; it's simply how women were treated.
The general's son is not cut from the same cloth. Danijel (Goran Kosti) draws down his weapon when a clear shot on a Muslim is available; he blocks potential rapes; and while he is certainly loyal to the Serbian cause, he does not necessarily believe the war excuses the methods. Danijel runs one of the Serbian camps and realizes that he had a brief relationship with a Bosniak prisoner prior to the war. He does everything he can to make Ajla (Zana Marjanovi) more comfortable, and before long, officer and prisoner find themselves in a secret and growing relationship while the war rips their shared homeland apart.
Kosti and Marjanovi certainly capture the peculiarity of their situation. The love scenes aren't titillating, and neither Danijel nor Ajla seems able to find the right context for their deepening feelings. How can she fall in love with a captor who won't set her free? How can he fight the war against the Muslims while keeping one as a sort of concubine? How can either pursue a relationship knowing what the most likely outcome is? For that matter, how could they not, if only to feel something human amid all the inhumanity?
Although the film is written and directed by Angelina Jolie, that never really factors in. To her credit, one of the most-famous faces in the world has chosen something serious to showcase, and she has done so without needing to be onscreen to make her point. Her direction is sturdy, and is particularly good in the few battle sequences and the one-on-one encounters between Danijel and Ajla.
Jolie's script, however, is on the shallow side. It relies more on the characterizations and instincts of its actors to make key points than the words on the page. There's a lot more to explore, even within these isolated circumstances of the larger war, than what she presents. Still, Jolie elicits some remarkable work from Marjanovi and Šerbedija, and her second trip behind the camera (there was some documentary about five years ago) doesn't come across as overly showy. But it isn't particularly distinguished, either.