Split in Two, by Tyler Smith
Angelina Jolie’s film In the Land of Blood and Honey isn’t necessarily bad. There is a lot of good in it. The cinematography and editing creates a gritty, paranoid world that puts the viewer in the midst of the brutal Bosnian War. It is to Jolie’s credit that she manages to put us on edge at almost every moment, never knowing if the characters are truly safe.
If Jolie had been willing to stop there and just tell the story of the war, In the Land of Blood and Honey might have been one of the better films of the year. Unfortunately, she uses these events as a backdrop to a fairly conventional, melodramatic romance. I’m not opposed to melodrama; the genre of heightened emotion can actually be very satisfying. The problem is creating a stark, harrowing reality based firmly on true events, then not having the foresight to realize that plunking an operatic romance right in the middle of it might undercut the harshness of the world created.
What we have is a film that seems to be at war with itself. You have a fairly interesting relationship story and a deeply unsettling war story. Separately, both could prove to be very interesting and stirring. Put together and you have a film that doesn’t seem to know what it is.
The story is the basic star-crossed lovers type. Danijel and Ajla have started to become romantically involved. Then the war breaks out and they find themselves on different sides. Not only is Danijel a Serb, but he is in fact a high-ranking soldier. Ajla, a Muslim, finds herself taken to a camp where her sole purpose is to serve the Serbian soldiers. This service usually breaks down into one of two ways; food or sex. When it is revealed that Danijel is the captain in charge of the camp, we are meant to gasp. And indeed we might, were this a different type of film. Unfortunately, by this time, we’ve already seen bloody carnage and brutal rape. Somehow the melodramatic turn of events just seems almost laughable in the midst of such horror.
The actors both do a very good job of trying to make the material work; trying to convince us that these two people and this situation could very well have existed in the gritty reality the director creates. Unfortunately, their efforts are all for naught, as the script insists on reminding us over and over that, like, hey man. War is rough and it tears us apart, you know?
There are a few very concrete examples of what I’m talking about. One has to do with the increasingly over-the-top nature of the story. It is not merely that Danijel and Ajla, previously romantically involved, now find themselves on opposite sides of a war. And it’s not merely that Danijel oversees the camp where Ajla is daily brutalized. But adding to the complications is the fact that Danijel’s father is an iron-fisted general in the Serbian army. And just when the sensitive Danijel edges towards compassion, his father comes down hard on him. So, it’s not just the societal pressures keeping Danijel and Ajla apart; there are literally parental pressures at play, as well. Once again, this is hardly the fault of the actors. Veteran character actor Rade Šerbedzija plays the general, and does what he can to humanize a character. But there is only so much he can do with a character that was only ever meant to be a literary device.
There are multiple love scenes in the film, and they are filmed with passion, as it is clear that this may be the only way these two characters can truly escape from the reality of their situation. Unfortunately, at the end of one such scene, Danijel leans in close to Ajla and whispers, “It’s a shame you weren’t born a Serb.” Suddenly, all of the emotion of the scene melts away. Because Jolie wants to do two things at once; tell the story of modern genocide while also giving us a steamy, complicated romance. Neither of these are particularly bad, but when they constantly intrude on one another, neither are particularly satisfying.
Angelina Jolie is, I think, a good director. The film has a strong visceral style that kept me uneasy at pretty much all times. This is no small feat; it requires a very specific type of editing and knowing how much to show us and when. Unfortunately, Jolie is not a very good storyteller. She attempts to do too much too often, frequently getting in her own way and tripping over herself. This wouldn’t be the worst crime, if the material were different. But In the Land of Blood and Honey is about, in many ways, the worst that humanity has to offer. It is bloody and violent and unblinking. To try to incorporate a romance into this- not just any romance, of course, but one of high melodrama- left a bad taste in my mouth. Jolie does a very thorough job of creating an emotionally disturbing sense of time and place, then proceeds to cheapen it.