Monday, July 13, 2015

In the Land of Blood and Honey


Starring: Zana Marjanovic, Goran Kostic, Rade Serbedzija

Rated R for War Violence and Atrocities including Rape, Sexuality, Nudity and Language

I was in elementary school when the Bosnian War occurred, so my memories of hearing about it on the news are slim.  The only thing I can recall is a poem I wrote decrying the violence and in which I compared Slobodan Milosevic to Saddam Hussein and Adolph Hitler (an apt comparison, as it turns out).

For all of its dramatic possibilities, the Bosnian War is something that Hollywood shies away from.  It's not surprising, considering the hopelessly complex factors that brought about the worst European conflict since World War II.  While no one can call any war simple, the Bosnian War erupted after centuries of conflict.  In that sense, I've got to hand it to Angelina Jolie for tackling it head on, especially since it was her first time writing and directing a film.  Unfortunately, it's not a very good film.

Alja (Marjanovic) is going out on a date with Danijel (Kostic).  Despite being different ethnicities (she is Bosnian while he is Serbian), they hit it off very well until a deadly bombing puts a sudden stop to things.  Six months later, Danijel is working for his father Nebojsa (Serbedzija) in the Serbian Army.  Alja is taken captive and ends up at a camp where Danijel works.  After he saves her from being raped, their romance is rekindled.

Surprisingly, the film's problems don't lie with the handling of the conflict's complexities.  It's actually one of the film's strengths; it's perfunctory (no film, even a documentary, could ever hope to fully explain it), but it gets the job done) but effective.  It's flaws are more conventional: a sloppy screenplay, uneven pacing, and an almost complete lack of chemistry between the leads.

Jolie's approach is a gritty, no-nonsense take on war.  It's graphic, cruel and uncompromising.  She drains the violence of all its dramatics (without losing its energy).  This has its pluses and minuses.  On one hand, it takes right into the heart of suburbia-turned-war zone in a way that is chillingly realistic.  On the other, it robs the characters of their energy.  By emphasizing the "every-person," they become personality-deprived and impossible to care about.  And that's aside from the feeble script.

The actors do what they can, and under different circumstances, they'd probably be effective in front of the camera.  But Jolie drains them of their charisma and energy, so I really didn't care what happened to them.  Zana Marjanovic shows no fear about putting herself in compromising positions (being in the nude or being raped) and does her best to provide an anchor for the film.  Goran Kostic, who looks like the offspring of Daniel Craig and Denis Leary, is surprisingly successful considering how awkwardly his character is written.  Sometimes he's a tender romantic while at other times he's a sadistic jailer.  Whatever point Jolie was trying to make with his character (if she was trying to make one at all) doesn't come across, but Kostic does as good a job as any actor could bridging the two wildly different aspects of his character's written personality.  Rade Serbedzija appears as Danijel's father, who is his superior officer, but his role is strictly supporting.  Still, he gives the best performance in the film (no surprises there).

The film's opening half hour is the strongest.  That's when Jolie is setting the stage and showing us how sudden death can be in war.  The film is at times shocking and difficult to watch, but such a visceral quality loses its luster.  Unfortunately, the struggle for survival gives way to an awkwardly handled romance; not only do the actors have no chemistry together, or at least aren't given the chance to show it, but they're kept apart for the better part of a half hour.  And for something that is obviously the primary focus of the film, it's ineptly handled (at least "50 Shades of Grey" was consistent).

Someday someone is going to make a truly innovative and wonderful film about the Bosnian War, if they haven't already (according to James Berardinelli, there are a number of brilliant films about the subject).  It's a shame that "In the Land of Blood and Honey" isn't one of them.

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