In the Land of Blood and Honey adorns the name "Angelina Jolie" across its marketing materials but don't expect to see the seraphic starlet pop up on screen. Jolie makes her directorial debut with the Bosnian war film a powerful drama that strives for realism in its use of homegrown talent the setting's native tongue and graphic depictions of violence. The goal of the movie is apparent: the genocide committed across the Balkan region in the early '90s was all but swept under the rug and Jolie is ready to unleash those horrific truths upon willing audiences. In the Land of Blood and Honey pulls no punches. The movie is terrifying and provocative telling a conventional love story only as a way of connecting with the mainstream. War is ugly and Jolie's film presents it truthfully.
Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and Danijel (Goran Kostic) are two Bosnians in the beginnings of a relationship—one that is eventually cut short by the eruption of conflict. Danijel a Serb police officer is recruited by his militant leader father Nebojsa (Rade Serbedzija) to join the Serb Army whose goal is wipe the country clean of Bosnian Muslims. He's eventually reunited with Ajla after she's captured by the Serbs and incarcerated in a concentration camp. There she is subjected to mental and physical torture serving the Serbs as they return from systematically wiping out her people and routinely being the target of their sexual abuse. Before finding himself whisked away on reassignment Danijel clues Ajla into an escape route which sends the prisoner on a journey through the war-torn country in hopes of reuniting with her family and possibly Danijel.
While the Romeo and Juliet-esque romance between Danijel and Ajla adds to the weight of the situation it never feels like the focus of In the Land of Blood and Honey. Rather than developing the complexity of the duo Jolie uses her characters as emotional proxies which works as a window into the unimaginable events of the war. Marjanovic and Kostic deliver compelling performances as Danijel and Ajla–both characters struggle with what they're romantic actions with one another mean to their respective causes—but even with their thread the real drama comes from the world around them.
There's no safety filter on the gut-wrenching atrocities Jolie puts on display: lines of Bosnian Muslims stripped naked and executed women seized by the Serbs and used as human shields and hidden refugees sacrificing their own just to remain concealed. The film is shot simply but the images speak for themselves. At times the character/dialogue-driven moments feel more like necessary pit stops before the next harrowing sequence—even in introspective moments like a scene in which Danijel contemplates and resists sniping a nearby enemy—but without them the movie would lack the necessary truth of the final product.
In the Land of Blood and Honey is a complicated film one that doesn't entirely work as an act of storytelling but whose end goal is a grisly success. Jolie's commitment to history makes the film a brave work of art and a must-see. Blood and Honey will leave you shaken and it's an experience you owe yourself to have.