With the 1990s Balkans conflict as its backdrop and a band of authentic Bosnian, Serb and Croat actors in its cast, In the Land of Blood and Honey is a determinedly tough political film, a condemnation of ethnic and religious strife, of those who committed atrocities and those who stood by and let them occur.
And all of this - in Bosnian, with subtitles, no less - from Angelina Jolie.
Yes, the Hollywood star of The Tourist and Salt goes behind the camera, making her directorial debut with an unflinching, if flawed, story of love and survival - or sex and survival - in the ruins of war.
It is the story of Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Bosnian Serb police officer, and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Bosnian Muslim artist, who meet in a bar and take to each other, happily dancing and drinking into the night - until a bomb blows the place to smithereens.
From this jolting prologue, In the Land of Blood and Honey cuts to a mass roundup of Bosnian Muslims, a few weeks into the conflagration. Serbian troops mow down ranks of the men, and load the women onto buses. They are taken to a camp, forced to cook and clean. And they are raped. Repeatedly.
Sexual violence as a by-product of war is a theme Jolie is intent on exploring - and she does so with chilling candor. Ajla is among the group deposited at this Serb Army encampment, and Danijel is now an officer in the same compound. (The movie hinges on such twists of fate.) He sees Ajla, and then sees to it that she's left alone - she is his for the taking, and she submits, willingly.
Yet, their affair is anything but the happy consummation of a blind date. Danijel and Ajla are now captor and captive - a relationship that's doomed by definition, and a relationship that Jolie struggles to convey in all its intense, shifting dynamics. Although Marjanovic gives an especially moving performance, we never get to her character's core. Is she in love with Danijel? (And is it possible to be in love with someone who wields such authority over you?) Or is Danijel now simply the means by which she can survive, survive the horror?
And what about Danijel? Is he in love with Ajla, or seduced by the power he now holds over her? Danijel's father (Rade Serbedzija) is a general in the Serb Army who harbors unwavering hatred for his Muslim countrymen, and he looms like a guilty conscience over Danijel's shoulder. The son is awash in a confusion of fear, guilt, desire, and the desire for control. Maybe there's genuine love in there, too.
Alas, Jolie's screenplay doesn't go deep enough, nor is it sophisticated enough, to convey the complex collision of feelings these two people must be experiencing. And so, the story of Danijel, Ajla, and the war all around them becomes a little didactic, a little less real.
But that said, In the Land of Blood and Honey represents a brave undertaking on Jolie's part. It's impressively steady filmmaking for a first-timer, and a powerful, powerfully disturbing subject to take on.