As consumers of popular culture we’re conditioned to endure scenes of sexual violence, often handled with misleading discretion (one sort of lie) when they’re not being treated as cheap contrivance (another sort of lie, reducing rape and its emotional consequences to mere plot points). Then we wait for the story to deliver the revenge, the comeuppance, so that justice is done.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the latest example in the pulp vein. Despite the ultimate triumph of Lisbeth Salander over her attacker, the English-language remake of Dragon Tattoo now in theaters hasn’t found the crossover audience anticipated by many. Perhaps the Tattoo fans, having dealt with Stieg Larsson’s thrillers first as novels and then, in fewer numbers, as Swedish-language film adaptations, have simply had it with this material.
In the Land of Blood and Honey is coming from a different place. It isn’t trying to sell us anything except a clear, blunt depiction of what so many women in so many countries must face when rape becomes an instrument of war. The story involves more than that, and the script’s not particularly vivid. But the best of the film, including the first 20 minutes, puts the audience through hell—honorably, I’d say.
In her feature directorial debut, working from her own script, Angelina Jolie (who also produced) has made a picture whose larger canvas is the Bosnian war of the 1990s and the relationship between a Bosnian Muslim painter named Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and a Bosnian Serb police officer named Danijel (Goran Kostic). Early in Jolie’s drama, these two dance, close together, in a nightclub. It feels like love, or at least freedom.
Then a bomb explodes, leaving Ajla and Danijel alive but shaken and surrounded by bodies. Ajla and other Muslim women are taken captive by Bosnian Serb soldiers and relocated to a military base, where soldiers assault and murder at will. In the nick of time (and this feels a bit rigged) Danijel saves his friend from the public rape about to be perpetrated by a fellow officer. Danijel’s father is a Serbian general, played by Rade Serbedzija, impatient with his son’s pangs of conscience regarding the enemy. Memories are long; everyone in Jolie’s film has lost someone to a war.
A cloaked relationship develops between Danijel and Ajla. On the surface they are the exploiter and the exploited. In part to protect her, Danijel keeps Ajla as his personal prisoner. Danijel’s motives remain hard to read throughout, partly by design, partly by some fuzziness and sketchiness in the script. As a director, Jolie rarely flinches in showing us the worst of the worst. As a writer, she’s still learning how to impart background information to an audience without turning her characters into fountains of exposition.
Jolie shot the film with a cast of Serbs, Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and Croatian Serbs, mostly in Budapest, Hungary (doubling for ’90s-era Sarajevo and other locales). She has two fine performers in Marjanovic and Kostic to bring these star-crossed lovers to life, or half-life, anyway. The best of the picture stays close to the women, and in this way Jolie’s film recalls such works as Ariel Dorfman’s novel and play Widows, focused on those whose loved ones were “disappeared” in Pinochet’s Chile and, going all the way back to Euripides’ The Trojan Women.
As an actress, Jolie has fearsome skill in mixing rage with loss, as in A Mighty Heart, in which she played the wife of kidnapped journalist Daniel Pearl. As a movie star, the same actress has made lots of money playing with guns and gratifying an audience’s blood lust. In the Land of Blood and Honey clearly came from the same impulse that has led Jolie into so many humanitarian efforts around the world.
If her movie cannot fully resolve the demands of the love story with the horrifying particulars of the context, she’s smart and honest enough as a first-time filmmaker to make Blood and Honey off-limits for those who prefer easy viewing. Even with a subject such as this.
In the Land of Blood and Honey (R) ★★★☆☆