In Angelina Jolie’s respectful and more than respectable directorial debut, the grimly immersive In the Land of Blood and Honey, a woman ends up in a Serbian rape camp overseen by a man she had a fleeting romance with on the eve of civil war in the former Yugoslavia. On their last encounter before the war, the pair — Danijel, a Serb policeman (Goran Kostic) and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Muslim who aspired to be a painter — seem like newcomers to each other, still strangers, but obviously entranced. This might have been their only date. They nuzzle, drink and dance to live music. Then a bomb blows out the walls of the club and put an end to everything promising between them. Their next encounter comes a few months later as Danijel bends Ajla over a table, pretending to rape her as part of his camp’s orientation process.
During production the movie, which Jolie also wrote, was plagued with rumors that it featured a character who falls in love with a rapist. But while some of the character’s motivations remain fuzzy, particularly those that spur a reconnection between the couple in a third setting, In the Land of Blood and Honey is not a love story. It’s more a study in self-preservation, for both of the parties involved. Ostensibly the sex between Ajla and Danijel is consensual, but can it ever really be so when she and her people are the prisoners of Danijel and his people? The movie’s strength lies in the provocative nature of this question, though Jolie’s answer lacks quite the force it should have, given the set-up.
That there would be rumors trickling out isn’t surprising, not just because of the enormity of Jolie’s fame but because the film does indeed explore the complicated grey areas between captor and captive; some word of that must have gotten out. The perspective of almost every other character in the film is without ambivalence – the Serbs are louts – but in Danijel, Ajla encounters some humanity, crippled though it may be. He cuts her from the herd on that first day to keep for himself. Yet the protection only goes so far; when she’s subject to another soldier’s sadism, Danijel doesn’t intervene, only offering comfort later, when he feels safe. His sincerity is not in question, but his courage is.
Because Jolie is known for her very public passions, which have progressed from the relative simplicity of the carnal to a globally-oriented expression of the maternal, the relatively sedate tone of In the Land of Blood and Honey is unexpected. The systematic use of rape as a weapon of war is depicted with discretion (the brutality was far more vivid in The Whistleblower, another 2011 Bosnian war-themed release). Jolie might show a shrieking woman being carried away by a soldier in the background, but she keeps much of the horror off screen, at a remove from Ajla.
Meanwhile, her scenes with Danijel read as lovers taking pleasure in each other’s company, legs and limbs tangled languidly in the sheets. Or maybe not entirely: “If only you had been born a Serb,” he says to Ajla in the aftermath of one session. Is that a storm brewing on her brow? It’s unclear because the woman remains something of a cipher – like her director, a dark haired beauty of regal bearing and poise. Yet she also remains worlds apart from the tough girl characters Jolie herself has specialized in, more of a lady in the tower. Danijel keeps her under lock and key in a spacious, pleasant room and as she gazes out of the window, with an air of the fairy tale princess or Gothic heroine about her, there is a discomforting romanticizing of captivity.
If there’s some element of Stockholm syndrome that plays into her relationship with Danijel, so be it. If she’s faking the attraction, her desire to survive by any means is admirable. There’s a hint that she’s operating as part of the resistance, along with her sister (Vanessa Glodjo, who has some of the film’s most touching scenes) but unfortunately those dots aren’t clearly connected. Going back over In The Land of Blood and Honey after its dramatic, tragic conclusion, the pieces of the puzzle don’t entirely track.
But then again, George Clooney’s first effort as a director, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, also ambitious (while hardly as emotionally grueling as this) didn’t entirely gel either. No one should be surprised that Angelina Jolie is as capable behind the camera as in front of it; why wouldn’t she be? Here’s an Oscar winner who travels the world on behalf of the United Nations listening to horror stories from refugees; processing pain is a regular sideline for her. She has been directed by the likes of Clint Eastwood and Michael Winterbottom and partakes in domestic bliss with a man once known primarily as a pretty face but who has quietly turned into one of the best actors of his generation. And she’s smart. All the components are there. No wonder In the Land of Blood and Honey is the most compelling, heartfelt movie Jolie has made in years. She isn’t in it, but she’s all over it.