A TRAGEDY―AND A TRIUMPHANT DEBUT
A review by Christopher Bernard
Why do so many critics seem to hate Angelina Jolie?
Because otherwise they might have to respect her. Even admire her.
Jolie, you see, is guilty of the supreme cinematic crime: creating, on her first outing as a writer and director, a morally challenging, almost unbearably honest film, and doing so with greater artistry than one can reasonably respect from such a comparative neophyte – especially when such a work is committed by a woman the press has never been terribly comfortable with, whom it prefers to see as a narcissistic sex symbol and tourist activist bent more on displaying a self-regarding compassion than on ending the suffering that evokes it.
The reaction of many critics has been a disgrace to the profession – but then, many of the reviewers were a disgrace to begin with.
The press rarely forgives being misled by its own prejudices. We don’t like being made fools of, even when we have been fooling ourselves. Many of us still haven’t forgiven Woody Allen for “Interiors” or “Stardust Memories,” near-masterpieces though they are (watch them with an open mind if you doubt me; but then, I have always felt Allen’s early films were the over-rated products of a talented adolescent; when he finally grew up, many in the American intelligentsia refused to grow up with him). Fortunately, the films will continue to live, on the love and admiration of audiences, long after we critics are moldering, clutching our press clippings, in our graves.
In her first feature-length film, Angelina Jolie has taken on an enormous task in terms of moral weight, intellectual daring, and cinematic artistry. That she has not entirely succeeded should come as no surprise; that she might be in a bit over her head is no dishonor. That she has succeeded as well as she has is little short of miraculous.
For this is a brave, and often terrifying, film; one that should be seen by anyone with concern about the devastations of modern warfare, the calamity of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, or the plight of Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, or indeed wherever Muslims are the subject of bloody-minded bigotry and hatred; above all, it must be seen by anyone who wants a candid look at the horrors faced by women in modern war. Indeed, for that alone, Jolie deserves our deepest gratitude.
By now, most movie viewers will be aware of the film’s setting in the Bosnian war in the 1990s, its use of Serbo-Croatian throughout, and the outlines of the plot: the Romeo-and-Juliet love affair between a Serbian policeman and a Muslim artist that, literally, blows up one night at a dance club in a provincial Bosnian city; the quick descent of Bosnia into war of Serbian against Muslim; the rounding up of Muslim women as servants and sex slaves for the Serbian army, and the continuation of the love affair when the Serbian officer discovers his Muslim lover among the profaned and humiliated women. They will also be aware of the sheer violence, the casual atrocities, of the film; none of it gratuitous or played for our entertainment or the frisson of the morally righteous – all of it both shocking and unsparingly illuminating of the depth, the depraved perspicuity, of human evil.
The cruelly ambiguous relationship between the lovers Daniejl and Ajla is presented with an aching awkwardness in a storyline that echoes such films as “The Night Porter,” “The Collector” and “Schindler’s List,” though with a twisted and fearful tenderness of its own. That it is not always convincing is partly the fault of the male lead, discussed below; partly from a lack of that final subtlety in the writing that perhaps only an Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Wajda might have pulled off.
The relationships between the victims (the fraught and terrible furtiveness of the impotent) and between the violators (the bitter, ageing general, who represents an older generation steeped in hatred and refusing to die without taking as many others with them as they can, and his intimidated son, the brittle, morally torn Danjiel who, in the end, cannot face down the domination of the patriarch), some of whom are as morally disgusted as the most impartial spectator, but who are caught in the trammels of resentment and hatred, the power relations of a deeply patriarchal society, are displayed with the insight and sensitivity one would expect of a far more experienced director.
As in the best war films, we are given a victim’s-eye view of warfare – lost in a bewilderment of fire, blood, screaming bullets, bomb thunder, relentless violence, and unpredictable catastrophe that display the world as the viciously senseless place it so often can seem to be even in peacetime but only now shown unmasked and naked.
The film has its weaknesses, the most serious being Goran Kostic as Daniejl sho wears a swagger that’s too slick by half, and seems to see too much of a mirror in the camera: the expression of emotional subtlety, ambiguity and complication do not seem to be his strong suit; a shame, as the film’s fatal and ineluctable conclusion loses some of its power and truth as a result.
However, Zana Marjanovic as Ajla makes up for many of her opposite’s flaws, in a performance trembling with a delirious passion for her blue-eyed policeman that by itself explains the enormous emotional tug for him later on, when the stakes will be her life itself.
The subordinate roles are handled astutely for the most part; Rade Serbedzija playing the poisonous, shrewd and bitter monster of an old general with an almost Shakespearean conviction. Shrewd camerawork and a discreet score complete this very fine film.
But you may not be ready for the ending, inevitable as it is. Unlike most American movies, where the logic of a situation is rarely allowed to get in the way of the triumph of love and the miracle of redemption, in this tragedy there is no salvation.
In the Land of Blood and Honey
Written and directed by Angelina Jolie
Christopher Bernard is the founding editor of Caveat Lector magazine and author of the novel A Spy in the Ruins. Work by him appears in the recent anthologies Conversations in the Wartime Café and Occupy SF: Poems from the Movement.