Sony // 2011 // 127 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 2nd, 2012
Love can change what we want.
War can change who we are.
There is a long and venerable tradition of actors and actresses stepping behind the camera. It likely began with comic stars, like Charlie Chaplin, who wanted greater control over the presentation of their gags. Once directors began to eclipse stars as the guiding force behind movies in the eyes of "serious" movie fans in the Sixties, dramatic actors increasingly went behind the camera, seeking prestige. In this context, I was hardly surprised at all that Angelina Jolie would try her hand at directing. I'm also not surprised that when it came time to choose a project, Jolie didn't aim for self-indulgent romance or gritty autobiography. Instead, the proud mother of a number of adopted children set her sights on dramatizing one of the more tragic examples of ethnic cleansing in the waning decades of the twentieth century. In the Land of Blood and Honey provides viewers with the horrors of war, but this relentless assault is more numbing than affecting by the film's end.
In 1991, Yugoslavia was broken up into six component countries. In the weird post-USSR political situation, lots of grudges that had been kept in check by years of oppressive rule were suddenly uncorked. That left three groups -- the Serbs, the Croats, and the Muslims -- with differing levels of animosity towards one another, and a different perception of who did and did not belong in the new Bosnia. The film follows the romance of Ajla (Zana Marjonovic), a Muslim artist, and Danijel (Goran Kostic, Taken), a Serbian solider, as the Serbian forces attempt genocide against the Croats and Muslims.
Eagle-eyed readers will notice just from the two cast member's names I've included, that In the Land of Blood and Honey is not one of those war pictures that features square-jawed American actors and beautiful Midwestern farm gals against a backdrop of European destruction. Nope, Jolie went for authenticity with In the Land of Blood and Honey. All the actors and actresses are from the region, speaking authentic dialect. Moreover, much of the film was shot in Sarajevo and surrounding environs. I don't want to use authenticity to describe what Jolie has achieved -- I wasn't there and I wouldn't know Sarajevo from Stuttgart -- but the level of detail does make the situation of the characters more engrossing.
Jolie deserves credit for her bold choices in this film. She obviously understands how to make a movie, and it's either pretention or cussedness that kept her from conquering the American market. She could have tweaked the basic idea (romance in a time of war), changed the setting a bit, and cast American actors for an instant hit. Instead, Jolie insisted on drawing attention to genocide. It's a testament to her skills as a director that the film comes off at all, being about such a dour subject.
The film is helped along by In the Land of Blood and Honey (Blu-ray). Whatever one thinks about a story set in war-torn Bosnia, this 2.35:1 AVC-encoded transfer is top-notch. Detail remains high throughout, colors are appropriately muted (though well-saturated), and grain is natural and filmlike. Most impressive, however, are black levels. Much of the film is shrouded in various levels of darkness (either at night or inside), and black levels are consistently deep with strong shadow detail. If I ever direct a film, I want it to look this good on Blu-ray my first time out. The audio is similarly strong. The DTS-HD 5.1 track keeps dialogue front and center, but it's the surrounds that shine on this track. Explosions, gunfire, ambient sounds all emanate from surround channels. It's an impressive, immersive experience.
Extras start with 16 minutes of deleted scenes. Most of them are extra bits between the Ajla and Danijel, and were cut for good reason. Next up is a 10-minute making-of featurette that includes cast and crew interviews with some footage from the film. Finally, exclusive to the Blu-ray is a 60-minute Q&A with Jolie and Vanesa Glodjo (who plays Ajla's sister Lejla in the film) talk about the making of the film, the significance of the historical situation, and the challenges of doing a film like this. My only real complaint is that I would have preferred these two provide a commentary over the film, using individual scenes to spark their stories. Instead, this Q&A feels kind of stale as the pair respond to fairly standard pre-planned questions.
The love-story-plus-war-torn-country formula is a bit tired. It generally works in the case of a film like Cold Mountain, largely because the audience (at least the American one) has a pretty good idea of the causes of the war and how horrible it was from years of depictions of it. Thus, when a writer/director stages a love story during the war it tends to humanize the horrors that most of us have only read about in books. Not so much with the conflicts in Bosnia. I have a vague idea of what went down (thanks, Wikipedia!), but for my money, the love story in this film is more distracting than illuminating. The film did drive home the point that the story of war-torn Bosnia needs to be told, but I don't think the standard forbidden love story is going to cut it for most viewers.
For the squeamish, lots of bad stuff happens during war. There's combat, rape, and death. Though I don't think there's any gratuitous carnage, this is not a film that shies away from the horrific aspects of war. For the sensitive, that means it might best be avoided. Even for those who don't mind harrowing films, the fact that In the Land of Blood and Honey offers no light at the end of the tunnel makes it a difficult film to sit through.
In the Land of Blood and Honey is an ambitious directorial debut from Angelina Jolie. The story of war-torn Bosnia is told with appropriate gravity, though the somber air might turn many viewers off. The overall excellence of this Blu-ray disc makes it easy to recommend a rental to curious fans.
Not pretty, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* DVD Copy