Rule one for writers: When in doubt, call up William of Avon. In the end it always comes down to Shakespeare.

If it’s two gunmen on the streets of Laredo, gangsters in Chicago, or star-crossed lovers on the streets of Verona or Mantua, Shakespeare is there in the smoke and fog, in the details and the heart of it all.

Angelina Jolie clearly kept that in mind as she wrote “In The Land of Blood and Honey.” This is Angelina’s first film, and it is an impressive piece of work, skillfully directed and written. “Blood and Honey” is the story of Ajla and Danijel, a Romeo and Juliet written in the blood of Muslim and Serbian pain and the honey of a sudden kiss.

Jolie puts her own stamp on the tragedy and wisely drops down through the fog of war and arises in on the “problems of two little people,” pawns on the bloody board. Jolie doesn’t mince words. Her bias is clear. The Serbian warriors are the villains.

Our lovers meet in a dance bar before the outbreak of war, in fact it is virtually sunset in the quiet streets before all hell breaks loose. Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) is a Serbian Muslim, a portrait painter with a small child. When her sister visits, she takes a breath of night air to meet an off-duty Serbian officer at a village night dance hall. They touch hands. He whispers into her hair. She smiles at the words. They dance to soft music and then a bomb rips the club open. Both lovers survive and help the wounded.

Jolie quickly shifts us forward four or five months to a different world where the war is now heated up, and an ethnic cleansing holocaust is in progress. All the familiar icons are present: barbed-wire encampments, mass executions, rape and pillage. Serbian troops round up Muslim men and women, hundreds of them, shoot the men, discard the children and load the women on busses to be taken to distant barracks. Here they will be raped and beaten and forced into manual labor as cooks, waiters and laundry hands.

All of this is shown in living color, close up and personal. It’s rape at its worst, old women, young girls. Much of it is hard to look at, and Jolie has even darker moments and greater, heart-breaking scenes to come.

The cast is perfectly set. Rade Serbedzija (“Eyes Wide Shut” “Stigmata”) as the father and Serbian General brings his usual tones and authenticity to the film.

But Shakespeare is here and Jolie knows it. There are the star-crossed lovers who carry the light and power of the story. Zana Marjanovic’s “Ajla” is mesmerizing. She’s a relative newcomer to American screens but obviously an actor here to stay.

Goran Kostic’s Danijel is a complicated piece of work. He has the kind of face that can be put on an SS officer or a Serbian sniper, a peasant or priest or conflicted lover. It’s a strong face that slips easily from loathing to love. His last two scenes in the film are shattering. He’s one to watch.

A debut film is a delicate thing. It’s a calling card for the artists’ future, not just the director and the players, but for all the artists that put it together, that scroll of names that rolls out as you’re leaving your seats. Gabriel Yared’s music is a major player here. It’s haunting, never intrusive. It’s there in the cold moonlight and blood on the walls, the romantic dancing and each final moment. Dean Semier’s cinematography is breathtaking and powerful. Jolie knew where she wanted the camera, but it’s clear that she trusted Semier’s hand.

The casual movie goer often forgets the gifts of that artist who decorates the set. It’s easy to place candelabras and hang drapes. But to prepare a room, one room, where a brutal rape will be committed, a portrait painted, wine and tea sipped, and a shocking murder committed, requires an artist. Such is Anna Lynch-Robinson.

“In The Land of Blood and Honey,” is an important film, a label I am generally uncomfortable with. But holocausts, ethnic cleansing, whether it be in Europe, the Middle East or the continent of Africa must be heeded. The victims cannot just be tossed into the open graves like animals by the thousands as happened in Bosnia. Attention must be paid. It’s important.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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