Sunday, September 19, 2010


Everything you've heard about A Serbian Film is true. All the depravity and the sexual torture and the gore and the far beyond the edge of reason violence against children. It's all true. But somehow it's not as shocking as you might expect, possibly because the film is so slick and professional and well put together that there's no verisimilitude on display. I have a boring old refrain about classic exploitation pictures, and what makes the best of them truly effective - you believe that the director is capable of the acts that you're seeing on screen. You feel like the filmmakers are making this movie because the alternative would be acting out the violence they're filming, that the artistic process is a release valve for deeply disturbed people. Some big time directors can pull that off - David Cronenberg is excellent at still coming across as perverse even in his most mainstream work - but while A Serbian Film is undeniably extreme, it never feels dangerous.

Usually when a movie is as well made as A Serbian Film while also being as over the top as A Serbian Film there's a sense of juvenile envelope pushing - like the filmmakers are simply giggling at the idea of showing something more extreme than what has been shown before. Transgression is serious business when done right, and while I didn't find A Serbian Film to be completely effective, I'm happy to report that director Srdjan Spasojevic is doing his transgression right. A Serbian Film is about stuff, not just about being the movie that gorehounds use to test themselves (although it's certainly become that). Unfortunately the deeper issues might fly right over the heads of Westerners, rendering A Serbian Film nothing more than a softcore gore porn. 

Milos is a retired Serbian porn star; he now has a beautiful wife and a lovely young son, and is quite happy. But money is running out, and maybe he misses the old days just a little bit, so when a mysterious filmmaker approaches him to get back in the game for one last large-paying gig, Milos takes the job. The set up is odd from the start; the filmmaker tells Milos that he's making a reality-based art film, and that rather than have a script or a premise Milos must simply walk into scenes and react to what's going on. The camera men are bruisers, looking more like secret police interrogators than cinematographers. And the scenes are weird, and they keep getting weirder. Children are involved. S&M is involved. And then things go really over the top. And then there's women getting their heads cut off while being fucked and children being anally raped and cockicide and, in the film's signature moment, a newborn baby being fucked by a hulking beast of a man.

The first half of A Serbian Film is fairly straightforward exposition; the sexy stuff, such as it is, really occurs right up front. Then in the last act as things get out of control and as the sex gets horrifying Spasojevic decides to show us what happens in a series of flashbacks. Milos is drugged with cattle aphrodisiac and wakes up, covered in blood, days later. As he retraces his steps he finds corpses and semen and video tapes of just what went down.

The plot of the porn film Milos is making involves the daughter of a dead war hero; the Bosnian War and the Serbian genocide hang heavy over the film. Part of what's happening here is about Serbia dealing with a national guilt hangover; the ugly things in the film are reflections of events in the mid-to-late 90s. But there's also something reactionary in A Serbian Film. Milos is just as much of a victim as the woman who is suffocated by a dick, and part of the point of the porn being made is to allow overseas viewers to wallow in the misery. There's a guilt hangover, but there's also a feeling of resentment that Serbia was put through such shit - by corrupt and evil leaders - in such a public view. Milos ends up technically complicit in some truly horrifying crimes, but he's being controlled by others. Whatever the reason for his actions, they're all caught on tape, just like the genocide of Muslims.

Again, I think a lot of the historical and cultural context will fly over the heads of viewers; A Serbian Film certainly sent me packing to Wikipedia to fill in my gaps in recent history. Smarter, more tuned in viewers will pick some things up, but I do wonder what reactions Serbs have to the political subtext of the movie. Still, I think that Spasojevic has filled A Serbian Film with enough weight that even the most clueless viewer will understand that there are issues under discussion here. This isn't just Amateur Porn Star Killer, trying to get a reaction out of viewers. Spasojevic has something to say.

There's something I keep coming back to with the film, and I don't know how much of this is intentional. Some minor spoilers ahead. The already infamous newborn porn scene intrigued me not because of what I was seeing - the filmed image couldn't match up with what I had built up in my head - but in the fact that the scene is only shown in A Serbian Film as a movie clip. Milos is forced to watch the sequence while being slipped a mickey. What got me really interested was the idea that there was no newborn porn - that what Milos was seeing was trickery. God knows it was filmed 'demurely' enough - there's no visible penetration. As the third act kicked in, with Milos discovering the events of the past few days only through video playback, I began to wonder if the reality of all of this was in question, if A Serbian Film wasn't commenting on the line between our desire to see horrors and our ability to inflict them, but that ends up not being the case. The film feels somewhat smaller as a result, and I couldn't help but wonder what David Cronenberg would do with material like this. Videodrome was heavily on my mind when A Serbian Film ended.

A Serbian Film isn't for most people; it will only appeal to those most willing to wade into the darkest, ugliest corners of the world. But the truth is that there's nothing in the film you couldn't seen for real after an a few hours on 4chan. I think that film as shock tactic has been overshadowed by internet clips; for a film to truly shock it has to first get under the audience's skin. A Serbian Film never quite does that; Milos' home life and family didn't grab me, and actor Srdjan Todorovic has a greasy sort of weasel aspect that kept me from truly empathizing with him. Milos looks less like a retired porn star and more like a porn star who needs to dry out. But Spasovejic gets points for trying; he understands that if he doesn't build some characters we won't care about the pain inflicted upon them. Again, A Serbian Film isn't always effective, but it always tries.

More than just a cheap bit of nastiness but not quite successful at being a truly disturbing bit of filmmaking, A Serbian Film is stuck in an interesting middle ground. It's a movie worth checking out (for those who can stomach it), but not necessarily a movie worth getting crazy over.


  1. Interesting! Just saw it yesterday (part of a double showing with OLDBOY) and having not known much about the plots of both movies (yeah, I've watched OLDBOY just now), it was quite the spectacle. Specially if you see the major plot points these two movies share -- but to me, A SERBIAN FILM failed in all the ways OLDBOY succeed. And it's not like I was shocked or disgusted by it -- it just didn't deliver all that it could.

    Anyway, good to read more reviews from you!

  2. Great review.

    You say that you wonder what Serbs actually think of the film? I'd like to point you to the comments on my review:

    Particularly a comment by a guy named Petar, who swears there wasn't much war in Serbia and he and his friends had a good time the summer of '99. Also, he outs one of the filmmakers as privileged for attending a private college.

    Regardless of the filmmakers' involvement with any actual war, I think people are being absolutely silly about this. It IS a political film, and just because the filmmakers didn't actually get down and dirty in war and they weren't actually impoverished themselves, doesn't mean they can't feel exploited and wronged. They have something to say about their country and their government. It's the same as someone making a politically charged film here. I may not be involved in the war in Iran, but I still have something to fucking say about it.

    Most people have such a neutered understanding of expression.

    Also, my favorite comment on my review: "this movie is not serbia… serbia is something elese and i am happy i am living there because serbia is a place to go out and have fun 24…7!!!!!! and not rape people!!!"

    From what I understand, Srdjan Todorovic is like Serbia's Kevin Bacon. So "weasel" may be the correct description.