There are several key lines uttered in the Bosnian War saga In the Land of Blood and Honey about over-simplifying the truth and about foreign forces throwing “their idea of justice at a country they know nothing about”—dialogue that would be even more resonant if the film that contained them wasn’t an overly-simplistic docudrama written and directed by Angelina Jolie. Granted, the former Lara Croft knows more than most about ethnic strife in war-torn countries, and has applied her knowledge to a tragic love story that’s part Romeo and Juliet, part The Night Porter.
Wisely not putting herself and/or other Americans in key roles, Jolie casts Zana Marjanovic as Ajla, a pretty Bosniak woman trying to survive as her people are wiped out by the military. She would have an even worse time if she didn’t happen upon Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Serbian soldier with whom she had a pre-war fling. When he can, which is not all the time, Danijel shields Ajla from his ghoulish compadres, who rape their female POWs and use them as human shields, all while Danijel and Ajla make the beast with two backs.
Much like the atrocities routinely depicted, Ajla’s and Danijel’s union is numbing and repetitive: they fuck, stopping occasionally so Ajla can express guilt over her less lucky compatriots or so Danijel can doubt Ajla’s sincerity. The ending, which shall go tantalizingly unrevealed here, is shocking—not only in its violence but in how it makes everything that we’ve seen suddenly more interesting. It recodes what preceded it as an entirely different, much more cynical breed of romance, making one character a lot colder than we assumed.
But the end can’t salvage the depiction of war from being suspiciously tidy. In Jolie’s eyes, Danijel is a good egg in a country of very, very bad ones, including his father (Rade Serbedzija), a hawkish, exposition-spouting general who makes it clear his purpose is taking revenge on the Muslim Bosnians who once oppressed his people. That may be true, but it makes for shallow characters and one-note drama, leaving audiences hungry for a more complex portrayal, perhaps from someone more than a humanitarian.