Yugoslavia’s Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1992: A Muslim artist puts down her brush, kisses her sister’s baby goodbye and goes out for a night on the town. At a nightclub, she meets a Serb police officer. They flirt. He asks her to dance. During a “song for lovers,” a bomb rips through the wall, killing many of the revelers inside and burying the rest in rubble.
In her directorial debut, Angelina Jolie turns her lens on the early ’90s Balkan conflict that saw the death of 100,000 people, the displacement of two million civilians and the rape of up to 50,000 women. It’s a brutal, upsetting viewing experience that parses the physical, emotional and moral tolls of war and indicts world-governing bodies (namely, the United States) for failing to intervene—all filtered through the story of this young couple.
Four months later, Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), her sister Lejla (Vanesa Glodjo) and their neighbors are rooted from their homes. The men are separated from the women, and machine gun fire is heard. Then the able-bodied women, including Ajla, are loaded onto a bus and shipped to a Serb military base, where they will cook, clean and serve the, uh, needs for their enemy combatants.
“I can sew anything you want,” one woman claims desperately.
“Can you fuck?” is all the officer wants to know.
Her debasement and humiliation is infuriating, but no one stands up for her, and just as the viewer’s frustration starts to turn on the victims for not resisting their tormentors, a civilian is shot casually in the head for nothing more than being out on the street. “Everything will be all right” is a constant refrain. It won’t, but the hope that it will at least not get any worse stays any threats of rebellion.
In charge of these brutes is Danijel (Goran Kostic), Ajla’s date from that fateful night. He recognizes her and spares her from her sisters’ lot. She’s wary of him at first, of course, but eventually they embark on a tentative love affair that they must keep secret if he’s to maintain the respect of his men.
Once again, it’s distressing to be asked to sympathize with this character, as she seeks solace in a man who allows her abuse everywhere but in his own room. Ajla’s motives are unclear. Is she protecting herself? Does she really love this guy? When he gives her a chance to escape, she doesn’t take it—but is it because she doesn’t want to leave the other women or she doesn’t want to leave him? Just where do her allegiances lie?
Jolie keeps the answers to these questions under wraps until the film’s final moments, which bring what’s been essentially a love story—a seriously screwed-up love story, but a love story nonetheless—into harsh relief. Jolie is unflinching and uncompromising throughout, casting Bosnian actors and shooting in both English and Bosnian. (Two versions of the film are available to theaters.) In doing so, she reveals that as much as she entertains us as an actress, her true passion lies with human rights.
Starring: Goran Kostic, Zana Marjanovic, Rade Serbedzija & Vanesa Glodjo
Release Date: Dec. 23, 2011