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In the Land of Blood and Honey is an impressive piece of work from first-time director Angelina Jolie.

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Director Angelina Jolie
Director Angelina Jolie

An actor turning to directing is nothing new and not all that rare. Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, and Clint Eastwood have done it. So has Madonna, who is currently represented in theatres with W.E., her own directorial effort that displays a distinct artistic vision based on a personal topic of passion.

But Angelina Jolie’s first feature film directorial effort is a work that stands apart. It’s a decidedly ambitious project, one which she not only directed, but also wrote and produced. While Jolie also directed the rarely-seen documentary A Place in Time, that movie was more of a collective effort based on Jolie’s idea to present footage from around the world filmed concurrently.

In the Land of Blood and Honey proves Jolie is fluent in the language of cinema. The real surprise is her unprecedented full-tilt approach. This is by no means a vanity project. Jolie’s actually made a foreign film for her directorial debut (and earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film). Aside from a handful of words spoken in English toward the film’s end, the entire movie is spoken in BHS (Bosnian/Croatian (Hrvatski)/Serbian) with English subtitles. Even the opening title cards are presented in both BHS and English while the end credits are almost exclusively in BHS.

Whoa.

Adding to this remarkable feat, an alternate version of the movie was shot in English; that footage served as the basis for the movie’s theatrical trailer. It’s a tricky thing, then, to release the foreign language version after promoting a spoken-English movie. Thankfully, though, the right move was made and the BHS edition was ultimately selected for US distribution. It adds an extra element of realism to the immersive experience.

Until the End of the World

When the very high level concept of the movie is summed up as a romance set during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), the knee-jerk reaction is to shudder with disappointment in anticipation of another Beyond Borders misfire.

But that sort of summary in no way does this movie justice. This is hardly a “love conquers all” story. Instead, In the Land of Blood and Honey is a stunningly unflinching look at a war which saw Serbians purge Muslims from the Balkan region and added the term “ethnic cleansing” to the euphemisms of war.

The movie starts with a Muslim artist, Ajla Ekmecic (Zana Marjanovic, Snow), going out on a date with a Serbian police officer, Danijel Vukojevich (Goran Kostic, Band of Brothers). They’re dancing at a night club when a bomb goes off; from then on, everything takes a back seat to war.

Theirs is a roller-coaster love-hate relationship with more vinegar and blood than honey.

Miss Sarajevo

Danijel is enlisted in the Serbian army, where his father serves as a general. Danijel’s a conflicted soul, seeing the world through more open eyes than his father. At least at first.

General Vukojevich (Rade Zerbedzija, X-Men: First Class) sees the war as an opportunity for retribution for the violence of World War II, when, in 1944, his siblings and mother were brutally murdered. He also talks about King Lazar’s heroic death during the Battle of Kosovo and the subsequent Ottoman conquest of Serbia. That dates back to more than 600 years ago.

History repeats and repeats and repeats because some people simply stew over the past instead of learn from it.

The relationship between Ajla and Danijel serves as a window into the war’s crimes and atrocities. Women are used as human shields, rape is seen by soldiers as a virtual right of war, and mass graves serve as a quick way to bury the evidence. Encampments feature the same rough, cold, dehumanizing elements found in Auschwitz.

Danijel tries to explain away the madness as the product of complicated politics. It’s not murder, he says. It’s politics. Ajla sees it for what it is: murder is murder. Their tortured relationship of tentative hope and vague possibilities suffers yet another decline when Danijel asks her, perhaps innocently enough in his own mind, “Why couldn’t you have been born a Serb?”

Walk On

The wider-reaching shame of it all arises quietly, during a dinner among Muslim refugees. While dining on a drop shipment of relief supplies from the Italians, it is pointed out the peacefulness of Italy, where people are sunbathing and tourists are enjoying the sites, is a mere 40 minutes away.

There’s also a scene reminiscent of the wonderful moment in The English Patient when Kip takes Hana on a romantic excursion and they baptize their souls in a church’s art offerings. In this case, it’s a late-night visit to a rubble-strewn Sarajevo art gallery, one in which Ajla’s own work used to be on display alongside artifacts from the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.

It’s a shared message. There’s a release, a commonality, a unifying experience in art that can soothe in times of strife. While this scene In the Land of Blood and Honey doesn’t reach the same euphoric heights as The English Patient, the undertones are there. As is Gabriel Yared’s evocative score; he also provided the music for Anthony Minghella’s masterpiece.

Amid the brutality that is presented in the movie, there’s also an excitement that is generated from seeing what Angelina Jolie is capable of doing. She’s made a movie of personal interest, but it’s also a story with far-reaching value.

Sure, Jolie has a reputation for being a “bad girl,” it’s a reality she’s aware of and learned from, as a recent interview on 60 Minutes attests. But this particular bad girl is also a good woman.