Judge Paul Pritchard invites you to the dark side of cinema. Dare you enter?
Our review of A Serbian Film, published October 25th, 2011, is also available.
"A real, happy Serbian Family."
There have been occasions where, it has been suggested, I posses a rather dark sense of humor. Whether it be the result of some yet undiagnosed psychological damage, or just my brains way of dealing with the things I find disturbing, it is true that I'll often make merry on subjects that other wouldn't even speak aloud about. The trick, I often say, is to remove anything personal from the joke. Put another way: finding the funny in something doesn't mean you condone it-you may very well be repulsed by it-but humor is just one way of dealing with it. In a similar way, whenever a movie comes along purporting to be the nastiest, most horrific experience available to man, I feel obligated to view it. But whereas I enjoy the visceral thrill of movies like The Beyond or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I find real life acts of violence both abhorrent and, quite frankly, frightening. Again, it's that separation between the real and the simulated/suggested that is all-important.
Now, it was only a short while ago that another film caused a bit of a stink regarding its so-called extremities: The Human Centipede. Here was a film that, once again, morbid curiosity insisted I see. If truth be told, I found Tom Six's effort to be dull, lacking in real horror (perhaps bar the final scene), and surprisingly formulaic. In short: it was a one-trick pony that fell at the first fence.
But now we have another contender, this time from Eastern Europe…and this time it had genuine promise of being the real deal. Ladies and gentlemen, in the red corner we have the harsh, the brutal, the "Oh my God, did I really just see that," A Serbian Film! Have your sick bags at the ready.
At the time of writing, my understanding is that A Serbian Film is currently without a confirmed US distribution, meaning that, apart from festival appearances, the film will remain unseen in the States for the foreseeable future. Although the film has been released in the UK, the BBFC insisted upon around 4-minutes of cuts, making A Serbian Film the most censored film released in the UK in nearly 20-years. It is therefore the 18-rated cut of A Serbian Film on which this review is based.
A Serbian Film tells the story of retired porn star Milos (Srdjan Todorovic), who now lives a quiet family life. Though not everything is rosy—his young son has taken an interest in his old man's filmography, while there are clearly money problems—Milos is happy. But everything changes when filmmaker Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic) makes Milos a proposition. Vukmir has a new project, an art/reality porn film that Milos must not have any prior knowledge of, but which will pay handsomely. Unsure at first, Milos accepts the offer, but quickly comes to realize the depraved nature of Vukmir's vision, as the unseen script calls upon Milos to carry out increasingly depraved acts.
What will, and has, caused a great deal of controversy with A Serbian Film is the juxtaposition of images of children with scenes depicting extreme sexual violence. Unsettling? Certainly. But that's also kind of the point. And this is where those who cannot easily distinguish art from reality are really going to struggle with A Serbian Film. There are scenes here that even the more seasoned gore-hounds amongst you will struggle with. But, honestly, that's a good thing. To be anything other than shocked, appalled and repulsed would be inhuman. A scene where Milos is fellated, while a young girl dressed like Alice (as in Alice in Wonderland) looks on is immediately jarring; and not just for the startled Milos. But as troubling as this imagery is, the film is able to raise a pertinent point: that without dramatic examples, society is only likely to continue the over sexualization of children. And that's only the beginning of where A Serbian Film wants to take you.
The most infamous scene involves Milos being shown a film by his benefactor, Vukmir. Vukmir, a former child psychologist, is attempting to explain the reasons behind the presence of children in his work. Put bluntly, he argues that from the moment we are born, we are raped by a system that will chew us up and spit us out until we are no longer of use to it. The film Vukmir shows Milos aims to prove this point in a very literal sense, and begins with a woman in the final stages of labor. We then see a rather large gentleman, and I use the term loosely, deliver the baby, and then proceed to commit the most depraved act in the history of cinema. Though the BBFC approved cut shows nothing graphic beyond the actual birth itself-which should be (and in a normal context is) a beautiful thing-the scene is still amongst the most disturbing I've ever seen, and is not just a little upsetting; a fact not lost on writer/director Spasojevic who has Milos leave the screening in horror. Here, once again, A Serbian Film doesn't just push boundaries, it smashes them wide open. It is this scene that will unnerve the most, and even those who find themselves exalting the film will be troubled by its inclusion. And yet, unbelievably, A Serbian Film isn't done with you yet. Not by a long way.
Indeed, not only does the scene mark a turning point in terms of the film's power to shock, it also sees a shift in the narrative style, as suddenly Milos is awoken with only vague memories of the three days that followed the infamous screening. From hereon in, A Serbian Film follows Milos as he works to uncover exactly what happened to him.
As Milos retraces his steps, aided by a set of found videotapes, the terrible truth is slowly revealed. Milos, who is seen to have been drugged shortly after he left the screening, becomes a sexed up monster. Urged on by Vukmir, we see a snarling Milos rape a chained up woman, before decapitating her with a machete…and then continuing to thrust into the headless corpse. But it doesn't end there. In fact, it only gets worse. The final 15-minutes of A Serbian Film are brutal. A scene depicting a "happy Serbian family" is extremely distressing to say the least. I'd hate to nullify any of the film's power for those who are curious to see it, but at the same time feel it only right to warn those who are unsure that there are images of extreme-head crushing-violence, and a horrific act of incest that will haunt you for days, if not weeks.
The film's finale is surely one of the bleakest in modern cinema. If you're having the type of day when you feel the whole world is out to get you, and that you're just a worthless cog in a machine, a pawn in a game played by the privileged and wealthy, then give A Serbian Film a wide berth. If the content of A Serbian Film says anything, it is that from the moment we are born, we are the playthings of corrupt authorities; and that we have two choices: acquiesce or die.
The execution with which debutant director Srdjan Spasojevic brings these events to life is quite remarkable. Spasojevic is clearly already an accomplished filmmaker, with a very strong visual style that has Fincher-like leanings. It's impossible not to be taken aback by the power of Spasojevic's vision, which makes great use of shadows, and often takes on an almost fairytale like feel at times. Also interesting is the tone in which events are played out. Despite the bleakness that engulfs most of the film, Spasojevic ensures the film doesn't totally crush the viewer, which he achieves by throwing in moments of the bizarre that, in a brave move, loosens the film's grip-momentarily at least-and allow the battered viewer some respite. A prime example of this is found during the final scene of Vukmir's film, which climaxes with a kill that brings new meaning to the term cock-eyed.
The film is non too subtle in pushing its central message-that to exist in our sugar coated world, we must all prostitute ourselves, and thus accept that our reality is in fact a mere faced; and that underneath it all, the world is a hard, uncaring, and cold place with no room for sentiment if we are to survive in it. I'll not even attempt to critique the film as an allegory on the plight of Serbians over the past 20-years, but for those with more than a passing knowledge on the country and its people, the film apparently works on a whole different level.
A Serbian Film could also be seen as a deconstruction of the torture porn genre that has been so popular in recent years, asking as it does why we feel compelled to view such violent imagery. But this is where A Serbian Film will come up short for some. Beyond suggesting it is our need to feel something-anything-that draws us to cinema's dark side, the film offers little else in terms of answers to the questions it poses, leaving the viewer to look within themselves; which isn't always easy. More pressingly, despite finding A Serbian Film a riveting work of cinema, I have to ask whether it does enough to justify its own existence. Could the arguments it raises not have been put in a less extreme manner? Probably not, but I'd have a lot less trouble recommending the film had it not included the scene involving the newborn baby. Though acted out mostly off screen, the very fact that it happens is perhaps a step too far.
It should also be stressed that there is never a single moment where any of the unfolding events are glamorized. The film is in no way attempting to arouse the viewer; likewise, though children are semi-prevalent throughout, the filmmakers have cleverly insured they were never actually exposed to any of the dark goings on.
The region 2 release of A Serbian Film has a stunning 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Immediately striking are the deep black levels, which add so much depth to the image and, with such an onus on shadows, ensure the viewer is drawn to exactly what the director wants you to see. The picture is sharp, with good color reproduction, and excellent levels of detail. The 5.1 soundtrack is another triumph, with the pumping soundtrack being employed to great effect from the opening scene. Dialogue is always clear, as are the various sound effects utilized throughout. The package contains a 12-page booklet containing an essay from horror critic Alan Jones, while the "Filmmakers Insight" tackles a number of issues raised by the film, as well as discussing the BBFC cuts. Finally, the DVD includes an introduction to the film by Spasojevic, where he offers an explanation of his work and its themes for those who, for any number of reasons, may not pick up on them by themselves.
A Serbian Film is not a film to be entertained by, but nor is it a completely grueling experience. Instead, what we have here is art at its most powerful; and like all great art, it has the power to provoke, shock, and divide opinion. As a piece of cinema, A Serbian Film is amongst the most gripping I have seen in recent times. This is a film for adults, and is not to be sniggered at or blindly rebuffed. Like many films that dabble in murky waters and break boundaries, A Serbian Film will likely be savaged by those who don't understand it (and likely won't have seen it before forming an opinion). If my review comes across as rambling, then it's because the film is so potent that it doesn't register quite like anything else I've ever seen. For fans of extreme cinema, this is essential viewing, and love it or hate it, A Serbian Film is not a film to be dismissed as cheap exploitation.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Revolver Entertainment
Review content copyright © 2011 Paul Pritchard; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.