War films can achieve a certain cold, clear moral power through the unblinking depiction of atrocity. Angelina Jolie, making her debut as a writer-director with In the Land of Blood and Honey, proves an expert at refusing to blink. In this drama set during the war in Bosnia from 1992 to '95 (the film is in the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian language with English subtitles), civilians get shot down in the street like hunted animals, a Red Cross van is blown to smithereens, and Muslim women are forced to watch one of their own get raped. The horror reaches an operatic climax when a mother discovers that her infant son has been killed by being tossed off a balcony (all for the crime of crying). Jolie stages these terrors with a stark objectivity. Set against a wintry backdrop of glum abandoned apartment complexes, In the Land of Blood and Honey captures the sickening way the war in Bosnia became a gray zone of genocide.
Yet that, unfortunately, is not enough to make it a good movie. When Jolie isn't doing a scrupulous job of re-creating Serb-on-Muslim violence, she's telling the sodden and rather implausible story of Ajla (Zana Marjanović), a painter imprisoned at an ethnic-cleansing camp, and Danijel (Goran Kostić), the Serbian police officer who having met her briefly at a disco before the war began becomes her lover and secret protector. The film views the entire regional conflict through these two, yet their relationship is a prism that doesn't reveal much, or develop a lot of interest on its own. You could call Kostić a more diffident Daniel Craig or, if you were being less kind, a steely-eyed automaton. The kind of nationalistic rage that stokes his military-general father (Rade Šerbedžija) stays mostly on the sidelines. In the Land of Blood and Honey isn't a soft-pedaled vanity project Jolie is too diligent a filmmaker to fall into that trap but when it comes to a topic like Bosnia, there's still a big difference between telling it like it is and telling it compellingly. C+