Judge Daryl Loomis thinks it's a good thing to get punched in the mind once in a while.
Our review of A Serbian Film (Region 2), published January 21st, 2011, is also available.
Not all films have a happy ending.
After years of watching extreme cinema, one eventually gets used to hearing about the shocking, brutal content that this or that movie contains. We develop defenses against the imagery and soon see, through myriad disappointments, that what is advertised is almost never what really exists. That is, of course, until it does exist, and that causes a most profound kind of shock. When the film is not exploitative garbage, but excellent cinema, the impact becomes great. So, after severe truncation in parts of the world, outright bans in other parts, and cries of outrage coming from everywhere, A Serbian Film has finally come to DVD in America, and it is an experience that few films can match.
Facts of the Case
Milos (Srdjan Todorovic, Black Cat, White Cat) is the retired king of the Serbian porn industry. He has a loving wife and a beautiful child, but money is becoming scarce. One day, an old costar of his comes to his rescue with an offer to star in a new kind of artistic porn film, and the director will pay him a small fortune to appear. He can hardly resist, but when he shows up for the shoot, he is disturbed to find that they will be filming in an orphanage. For a few days, he goes along with the increasingly extreme acts he's asked to perform, but soon can go no farther and quits. On his way home, he blacks out and wakes up in his bed three days later, covered in blood and unable to find his family. His search brings him to the director's estate, where he finds a cache of videotapes that reveal the past 72 hours and the horrors that, under the influence of drugs, he actively engaged in.
In my memory, there is only one other movie that I've ever seen which could put me in the kind of mental state that A Serbian Film achieved. That film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, is so powerful that, as much as I love it, I am afraid to watch it for knowledge of the depression it will cause me. As they say, though, misery loves company, and now it has a European brother to wallow around with in A Serbian Film, which seemed to suck the serotonin and dopamine directly out of my brain as I watched it.
The content that I had read it contained, but will not describe here, is not exaggerated, though its graphic nature surely is. Purely in the realm of violence or gore, there is little here that even the casual horror fan hasn't witnessed. Instead, the film's power is derived from its concepts, vile and depraved ideas that can only come from the darkest regions of a person's soul. Director Srdjan Spasojevic does not directly show viewers the extent to which these characters go; he lets the imagination of the audience do the heavy lifting for him, forcing them to create the image for themselves in their own heads. Had A Serbian Film actually shown everything splayed out on the screen, it might be easier to dismiss the film as an exploitative exercise in the extremities of gore and sex, as in the work of directors like Bill Zebub (Kill the Scream Queen) and Jörg Buttgereit (Nekromantik). In a way, I wish it had done just that, but Spasojevic had loftier aspirations. I'm not going to say that I thank the director for his work, but I have the utmost respect for what he has done.
For Spasojevic, A Serbian Film is as much a political statement as a horror film and I have a hard time arguing with him about it. His politics come abundantly clear about halfway through during the most infamous and complaint-inducing scene in the film. Almost to the point of overkill, the pornographer Vukmir (Serej Trifunovic, Next) explains why he is making such extreme work under artistic pretense, as a reflection of the way Serbian government treats its citizens, who have no choice but to succumb to their wishes. Vukmir's rant is accompanied by one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen in a film and, in answer, Milos decides to take a stand and walk away, only to be drawn back in by means outside of his control, further cementing Spasojevic's point and drawing us into a realm of horrors that few will be able to reasonably take.
After it's all said and done, we are left with utter desolation and one of the most emotionally devastating finales I have ever seen in a film, regardless of genre. I've developed quite a suit of armor toward atrocities in horror films, but this subverted all of my expectations and pierced the chinks in that armor to leave me staring at the screen for minutes after the credits rolled and the splash screen for the DVD had returned, numb and sad and basically grieving what had happened. A Serbian Film is brilliant, both cinematically and in the writing, an absolute achievement as a film, especially for a director's debut release. But as much as I can soundly admit that, I don't know how I could possibly recommend it to somebody in good conscience, especially to somebody with a family.
A Serbian Film comes to us from Invincible, a label I am unfamiliar with, but who has done a good job with the film, which is presented here virtually uncut, advertised as one minute shy of the full running time and eight minutes longer than what Judge Pritchard experienced for his review of the Region 2 disc. The disc features an excellent anamorphic image that is as perfectly detailed as I can expect from a standard definition transfer. Though the film has a certain washed-out quality that is certainly deliberate, the colors are excellent and both black and white levels are clear and strong. The surround sound mix is equally solid, with very clear dialog and good separation through all the channels. The film has only one extra, a digital copy of the film available for download if (lord, help you) you are impelled to carry this film around on your person. In this case, I appreciate that the film is presented without comment from the director or the stars and without essays or production featurettes. This film needs to speak for itself, unadorned with justifications or explanations of what it means. As the viewer, this becomes our job, whether we're ready to accept such a task or not.
Try as we might, we cannot unsee the things that we have witnessed. For better or for worse, A Serbian Film will forever be lodged in my mind. Extreme as it may be, art is not dependent on the viewer's whims to give it legitimacy. If it is not for you, then it is in your power to not watch, but once you do, I have a hard time believing that it won't deeply affect your psyche. This film is not enjoyable in any way, but it is a harrowing experience that is without equal. In that way, at the very least, Srdjan Spasojevic is overwhelmingly successful with his debut production, even if I never want to watch the film again.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Invincible Pictures
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