You’ll need a high tolerance for cinematic debasement to watch A Serbian Film, the directorial debut of Srđan Spasojević, now out on DVD and Blu-ray. If you’ve paid attention the flurry of controversy surrounding this movie, you’ll know that it’s the latest installment in extreme cinema’s “most fucked up movie ever” sweepstakes. The previous title-holder was The Human Centipede which, honestly, is more silly than shocking.
Like any good, divisive movie, A Serbian Film has been banned, censored, and edited. But as often as it has been reviled, condemned, and decried for its explicit sexual violence, it has also been praised and celebrated. Love it or hate it; elevate it as art and social commentary, or denounce it as exploitive trash; either way you’ll need a hug after this film. It’s one of the most disturbing pictures you’ll see, and is not an easy thing to watch.
Milos (Srđan Todorović) is a Serbian porn legend, now retired and living a largely happy life with his beautiful wife, Marija (Jelena Gavrilović) and young son, Petar. He has a skeevy, corrupt cop brother, Marko (Slobodan Beštić), and scrapes out a meager existence in his post-war homeland, revisiting his glory days by watching his grainy old VHS tapes. When sultry Lejla (Katarina Žutić), a former co-star, visits him one day, she makes him an offer he can’t refuse. She works for a man named Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović), a filmmaker who is willing to pay Milos a staggering sum of money to appear in his mysterious art film. It’s still porn, but artsy porn, for foreign consumption. We’re talking enough money to set Milos and Marija up forever.
Though you’ve seen the one-last-job-to-set-you-and-your-family-up-for-life story before, A Serbian Film gives it a unique spin, and the first portion of the movie succeeds very well. Vukmir keeps Milos in the dark about the project, revealing only bits and pieces as they go, each one growing progressively darker and more disturbing. The movie manages to be sinister at the same time as it serves as political allegory about corruption and censorship in Serbian cinema as well as life, society, and the state of culture in Serbia’s troubled climate. It will make your skin crawl, there’s torture and abuse involving adults and children —there’s also something referred to as “newborn porn” after all—but it’s equally as engaging and thought provoking as it is upsetting.
Somewhere in the middle, however, something unfortunate happens. A Serbian Film moves away from the ominous mood and feel, away from the metaphor, and worst of all, away from the story, and settles into a posture of shock for shock’s sake. Milos, fed up with Vukmir’s sadistic debauchery and cruelty, quits the production, but through a series of questionably plausible events, wakes up after being drugged, and has to retrace his steps in order to piece together what happened during the missing time. What he finds tears him apart mentally.
Thus, A Serbian Film abandons what makes it most interesting, and suffers greatly for this choice. Yes, the images are horrific and brutal and difficult to witness—there’s murder, rape, murder rape, violence, torture, and degradation of a kind not often envisioned—but as the same time you can feel the filmmakers trying oh so hard to shock and appall that it becomes a distraction, and as a result the onscreen action loses much of its impact. Add to this that if you are at all familiar with the tropes, patterns, and imagery of extreme horror cinema, you know exactly what is going to happen.
The big reveals are precisely what you anticipate. Here’s an exercise, imagine what would be the most awful thing that could possibly happen in a given moment, and that’s what you get. Instead of the oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-they-just-did-that moments that the filmmakers shoot for, you’re left with a dull, yeah-I-knew-that-was-coming sense. This leaves the latter portion of A Serbian Film empty, unfulfilling, and unfortunately exploitative, whereas the earlier part—though certainly a rough spectacle—has far more substance and merit.
Despite the flaws, A Serbian Film is an interesting movie, and certainly worth a look if you have the intestinal fortitude to make it through. However, you might want to have a puppy or kitten close at hand for when you finish, you’ll need something cute and cuddly after seeing so many dreadful things.
Released on home video in North America by Invincible Pictures—many retail outlets have refused to carry the product—A Serbian Film comes with nothing in the way of bonus features. This is too bad and feels like a missed opportunity. There’s such a wealth of controversy surrounding the movie, and Spasojević and writer Aleksandar Radivojević have been so outspoken in defense of their finished picture, that there is a wealth of untapped potential. You could explore the sex, the violence, the allegory, the politics, the outcry and uproar, and so many more elements, that the fact that there are no extras is disappointing.