Here we are, deep into the holiday movie cycle, and Angelina Jolie has delivered a package no one expected to find under the tree. This is no animated confection about a swashbuckling kitty or some madcap variation on the fat man in red. Oh, no. Jolie takes us on a tour of hell in her first directed feature, In the Land of Blood and Honey, offering a story of tortured lives placed in the 1990s nightmare of the Bosnian War. The film opens two days before Christmas and spares its audience nothing.
Blood and Honey steps into the ring here against a previous Smackdown champion, A Mighty Heart, from 2007. This opponent also builds on disturbing recent events as it follows Mariane Pearl trying to find her husband, Daniel, who worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and disappeared on his way to an interview in Pakistan. Jolie starred in this one, and her performance earned her nominations for a SAG award and a Golden Globe. Her husband, Brad Pitt, served as a producer.
Hellish experiences transformed into art, both connected to Angelina Jolie. Which does her more credit as an artist in film? Which leaves the more indelible impression? And which should you squeeze into your holiday viewing schedule alongside New Year’s Eve, Arthur Christmas and The Muppets? That’s our Smackdown, folks. Take your medicine and enjoy it.
While filming Lara Croft in Asia, Angelina Jolie got an eyeful of a world in desperate need, and to her credit, she didn’t look away. Her latest film, which she also wrote, won’t let us turn away, either. Jolie is, of course, a bona fide movie star, a two-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner (Girl, Interrupted), who also served as ambassador for the Office of the United Nations Commissioner on Refugees. She has devoted her time and treasure in service to others.
Her first directorial effort, In the Land of Blood and Honey shows a nation at the flash-point, following two unlikely lovers trying to stand clear of the religious/ethnic hatred destroying their piece of the Balkans. Against a backdrop of hair-trigger regional tensions, Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) meets her beau, Danijel (Goran Kostic) in a club. While they dance, a bomb destroys the building and the lives they knew. Centuries of mutual atrocities boil over as Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and Croats begin destroying themselves. “Ethnic cleansing” is now commonly discussed and undertaken.
Suddenly, Ajla and Danijel’s love becomes a Shakespearean tragedy waiting to happen. And it does: Danijel is a Bosnian Serb police officer conflicted by his nation’s descent into civil war. Ajla is a Bosnian Muslim artist living in exactly the wrong place. In short order, soldiers round up Ajla and her neighbors, killing the men and gathering the women into sex camps. By sheer luck, Danijel finds Ajla and is able, for a time, to shield her from degradation. Ultimately, they cannot shield each other from the horrors of war. Their relationship corrodes in this toxic atmosphere, and madness claims them both.
The whole world witnessed the horrific events depicted in A Mighty Heart. Daniel Pearl reported on the war against the Taliban, rotating between Afghanistan and Pakistan in early 2002. He sought that last elusive interview before leaving Pakistan with his pregnant wife, Mariane.
Danny’s fateful decision had lethal consequences, and his kidnap touched off an international manhunt. While Pakistani security forces and American officials dutifully chased false leads to dead ends, Mariane Pearl endured the ordeal away from family and with few people she could trust in Pakistan. Her memoir formed the basis of John Orloff’s taut screenplay.
Encouraging signs come slowly, then disappear. In this environment, Danny Pearl was especially vulnerable: As an American and a Jew, he was suspected by his kidnappers of working for the CIA or the Israeli Mossad. Some of his captors were arrested, but not before committing a final, revolting outrage: They videotaped his beheading. Director Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo) showed thankful restraint in declining to depict Pearl’s murder. I saw the actual tape and regret it to this day.
Both these movies are excellent in different ways. Mighty Heart is well directed and delivers a larger message about the failure of tolerance and understanding. The film earned a pile of award citations. Among its well chosen cast, Will Patton is reliably solid, as is Dan Futterman, who bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to Danny Pearl. Jolie is riveting, but that didn’t satisfy a few writers who criticized her, as a white actress, for playing Mariane Pearl, who is mixed-race. Pearl had said race wasn’t the issue and asked Jolie to play her in the film.
Jolie’s role in writing and directing Blood and Honey is a major step forward for a maturing film artist. This movie is not for the squeamish—it depicts the systematic rape of women and murder of innocents. It also features great performances from actors largely unknown to American audiences. The film earned a Golden Globe nomination and a citation from the Producers Guild before it officially opened. Don’t be surprised if it also receives an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film.
All this from a woman most people know mainly from the tabloids. It’s time to stop all the background noise about her expanding family and the long-term prospects for her marriage.What matters is the ascending arc of a film artist’s creative reach, which we see here in spades.
It’s a shame few people will bother to see Blood and Honey, and to Angelina Jolie it cannot be a surprise. This is no one’s idea of a feel-good holiday movie. Mighty Heart, for instance, fine as it was, barely earned back its $16 million production costs. Who knows what Blood and Honey will draw.
Gauging the ultimate impact of either film is a tougher call. Reporters are still routinely intimidated into silence or murdered by drug thugs and regimes around the world. Matters are barely different in the former Yugoslavia and across the Balkans. Tensions remain high, trust is largely illusory, blame-placing is endemic.
That’s why it’s crucial that art keep the issues alive, when forgetting is so much easier. I can’t choose between the outrages shown on screen, but I know which of these two powerful films had the more impact on me: In the Land of Blood and Honey, which marks Angelina Jolie’s distinct growth as an artist. See this movie. In fact, see them both.