In the Land of Blood and Honey, Angelina Jolie’s new film, is a lot like its filmmaker: showing through the socially aware exterior is a perversion, the remains of a former self. The socially aware star hides away the wild-eyed party babe of the biopic Gia and Girl Interrupted. In spite of its purported intent – to vividly portray criminal warfare – her new film bleeds with the delight of capturing violence for its own sake. Though Jolie’s intentions seem honest, any seasoned cineaste would wonder why a debuting filmmaker would go for material as challenging as the Serbian genocide in Bosnia, from 1992-1995. Polanski didn’t touch such stuff until 40 years after his debut. As we’d expect, Jolie, whom we can’t deny has an artistic sensibility, struggles with the material. Looking to Polanski’s triuphant project on genocide, The Pianist (and a very personal one), helps clarify why Jolie can’t handle the weight.
The final act of Polanski’s 2002 film meets the needs of rising action. In spite of being largely a one-man show, Wladyslaw Szpilman’s (played by Adrien Brody) flight into hiding during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw satisfies the classical narrative arc. It’s a story of persistence, but also of luck, instances of which help him to survive. The final instance comes in the form of Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), a Nazi Hauptmann who, upon discovering Szpilman in hiding, allows him stay. Angelina Jolie is obviously fond of this kind of fugitive’s saint figure. He doesn’t appear until the final act in Polanski (who knows the character is a tough sell). And yet the figure takes center stage for the entirity of Land. In The Pianist, Hosenfeld just barely lets Szpilman go, his own morality winning over Nazi order by a notch. The former stays at a distance, returning briefly to offer Szpilman bread and jam. Jolie’s character, a Serbian commander named Danijel (Goran Kostic), commits to his fugitive, Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), for a prolonged period. The two are romantically involved before the conflict, and their relationship continues when he discovers her imprisonment. Even if possible in reality, his continual sympathy tests suspension of disbelief. It would take extreme character for this kind of action, and an impressive portrayal, not found here.
A sudden bombing opens the film, as one does in The Pianist. Soon young Bosnian women are gathered by Serbian soldiers and brought to something like a work camp. The film doesn’t take long to reveal Jolie’s (rightful) loathing of these Serbs. They repeatedly rape and brutalize their women prisoners, while Ajla gets some protection from Danijel. The other soldiers are outright war criminals or happy to cooperate with the cruelty. Even if Jolie (briefly) aims compassion toward another soldier, who’s about to become a father, it hardly lands. Danijel’s sympathetic dimensions couldn’t translate from the script. He plays as a prop to showcase an army of haunts with little purpose, save indictment.
Also like Szpilman, Ajla is on the run. She escapes imprisonment only to return into Danijel’s hands. Though positioned as a war film, the overall narrative falls back on the romance genre, with a seriously predicament between the two lovers. The film bets largely on Kostic, whose character must depict the duality of a ruthlessness (to his subordinates) and a tortured soul (to his lover). (The veteran Rade Serbedzija, playing Danijel’s father and a Serb general, captures the former with eerie effectiveness.) Kostic’s physical performance resorts to nervy intensity, leaving him one-note. Marjanovic must present the deep terror of first-hand rape and murder. Needing to approach Brody’s brilliance for the film to be memorable, Marjanovic remains subdued and wide-eyed, looking too much like a stand-in for Juliet Binoche.
It’s no help that Land comes in the wake of Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film, a title that reflects a cultural identity permanently associated to genocide. This study in brutality – and many say, the limits of taste and censorship – still has more reachable goals in sight: terrorize and repulse with a swift hand, to have viewers forget they’re experiencing the most repellent via artistry. Land aims for terror and the essence of humanity, at its most trying. The motions feel like those of a prankster still learning to be serious.