An agonized romantic melodrama set during the Bosnian War, “In the Land of Blood and Honey’’ is a credible narrative feature filmmaking debut even if you didn’t know that the director was Angelina Jolie. An awareness of who’s behind the camera, though, goes some way toward explaining the movie’s sometimes powerful, sometimes queasy mix of earnestness and soap. Like Jolie’s public persona, “Blood and Honey’’ is both strong and headstrong, equally invested in grit and glamour with a hazy understanding of the line separating the two.
That said, Jolie can write and film a sequence with panache. The movie (which was filmed both in English and in Bosnian; the Kendall is playing the subtitled version only) opens in 1992, on the eve of genocide. An elegant Muslim artist, Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), has a date with a sad-eyed Bosnian policeman named Danijel (Goran Kostic), and the two dance in a Sarajevo nightclub with abandon and tenderness. It’s a great scene even without the cataclysm that ends it, and we’re given a mournful sense of what life must have been like in post-breakup Yugoslavia before everything went to hell.
The rest of “In the Land of Blood and Honey’’ takes place in the inferno. We see Muslim men taken off to be shot, their women herded to a concentration camp where rape is what soldiers do when they’re bored. Danijel is now a captain in the Bosnian Serb army, a grudgingly accepted golden boy whose father (Rade Serbedzija) is a general with long memories of Turkish atrocities against his people.
Of course Ajla ends up at the camp, and of course Danijel, struggling with his complicity in mass murder, takes her under his wing. Marjanovic is a striking presence and possibly a good actress, but, as written, her character is a two-dimensional figure whose passion for her enemy-lover never makes sense. What begins with the impact of a documentary starts to devolve into purple psycho-romance: After urging Ajla to escape, Danijel imprisons her in an atelier of her own, where the two make soft-focus love after he comes in from a hard day of pretending to shoot Muslims.
Jolie keeps pulling the movie up to the brink of absurdity, then stepping back; she’s a solid director when she’s not trying to make a point. A single pair of shots illustrates her strengths and weaknesses. A Muslim woman arrives home to find that Serb soldiers have thrown her infant son from a balcony to his death, and Jolie’s camera takes a position high above the courtyard as the stunned mother cradles her child’s body. It’s a heartbreakingly stoic image, and the close-up that interrupts it is wholly unnecessary. But who’s going to tell our reigning pop culture Amazon that she’s laying it on too thick?
At the center of “In the Land of Blood and Honey’’ is a harsh dramatic conflict, and it belongs to Danijel rather than Ajla. A sensitive man overseeing a platoon of hulking sadists, a son who will never live up to the bloody-minded macho of his father (Serbedzija handles the difficult trick of making us understand, if not sympathize with, this brutal old lion), a romantic during wartime, Danijel is pulled from all sides, and the suspense of the movie comes from waiting for him to fly apart.
Instead, it’s the movie that crumbles, as Jolie’s humanitarian agenda takes a back seat to increasingly preposterous plotting. That she’s not yet a confident storyteller shows in the film’s editing, which sometimes jerks the audience from scene to scene without setup. Novice filmmakers often have to rely on their cinematographers (Dean Semler does the duties here), editors (Patricia Rommel), and other craftspeople, whereas seasoned directors know how to turn the many parts into their own streamlined whole. Jolie has a mission and a story she thinks is strong enough to hold it; what she doesn’t have, yet, is the filmmaking force of will.
But only a fool would think she won’t get it sooner or later.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.