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In the Land of Blood and Honey

January 15, 2012
In the Land of Blood and Honey

I cannot fault Angelina Jolie for her intentions; she’s clearly concerned with global issues of justice, and she uses her position to do some good in the world. On the other hand, I can fault her for writing and directing a bad movie, even though she did it with the best of intentions. In the Land of Blood and Honey does shine a needed light on the worst European genocide since World War II, but in trying to graft this onto something she calls a “love story” — Ms. Jolie, what the hell were you thinking?

We meet Ajla (Zana Marjanović) and Danijel (Goran Kostić) in 1992, on their first date. They dance to a live band in a local pub, which then blows up. Four months later, their lives have gone in radically different directions.

Ajla is a Muslim in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Danijel is a Serb. For those of you who weren’t paying attention twenty years ago, this war is where we got the euphemism “ethnic cleansing”, and the Serbian army is busy “cleansing” the Muslims. Ajla is rounded up along with many other women from her town. The men of working age are summarily machine-gunned around the corner; the women are transported to serve — and service — the soldiers in a nearby camp where Danijel happens to be the captain. He does what he can to spare her, telling his men to leave Ajla to him, but he can’t be around forever.

Other than Danijel, the Serbs are almost uniformly, well, evil. They rape and pillage, reveling in firefights with nary a comment on why they do what they do. The Muslims comment that not all Serbs are like this, showing their own moral superiority. Danijel’s father, Nebojša (Rade Šerbedžija), a general, makes some small comments about the centuries-long rivalry that was suppressed by Tito during the communist era. But these comments mostly serve to prove that the film’s opening text — that Serbs, Croats, and Muslims had lived together in “peace and harmony” before the war — a lie. Besides, if it were true, why was there a war in the first place?

I don’t mean to forgive the Serbian army their war crimes; what they did was horrific. But to paint them as mere sadists ignores the banality of evil. It becomes easy to say that that’s what bad people do; we’re not bad people, so we could never be like that. This is dangerous when evidence keeps coming in that good people in extreme situations sometimes end up doing very bad things.

Ajla’s relationship with Danijel may be many things, but to call it a “love story” is somewhere between insulting and blasphemous. Any relationship between a prison camp commander and one of his prisoners is by definition coercive. No matter if she seems to give herself willingly, this cannot be anything but a less physically violent form of rape. No matter Danijel’s intentions, in practice he’s a monster.

Joey Comeau once opined that there’s a lot of sexual violence in horror movies, but no rapists, in that there aren’t any realistic characters who commit their crimes and yet don’t think of themselves as having crossed a line. I’d modulate that a bit: it’s important that the script not be as willfully blind as the character.

Once you’ve picked up on this central fact, the movie becomes a parody of itself. The Serbs are almost cartoonishly malevolent, and Danijel is supposed to be at least a little better because he alone thinks that what he’s doing may be wrong. But really at heart this is a story about a moderately-conflicted rapist keeping his victim captive for years. It’s torture porn, albeit highbrow torture porn with a social conscience.

Worth It: no
Bechdel Test: I’m going to call this a failure. Ajla does talk somewhat with her sister, but never much more than to convey some minor plot point.

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