Written by: Aleksandar Radivojevic (screenplay), Srdjan Spasojevic (screenplay)
Directed by: Srdjan Spasojevic
Starring: Srdjan Todorovic, Sergej Trifunovic and Jelena Gavrilovic
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"The whole fucking country is one big shitty kindergarten. A bunch of kids discarded by their parents. Do you know what if feels like? Your whole life you're compelled to prove that you're able to take care of yourself. To prove that you can shit, eat, fuck, drink, bleed, earn money... do whatever it takes to survive, until you die!"
A Serbian Film opens with an establishing shot thatís fore-grounded by a place called Le Club Filth, which is appropriate enough; as you probably already know by now, this is the movie thatís caused audiences to question their faith in humanity over the past couple of years as itís toured the festival circuit and gained heaps of infamy along the way. Being reputed as quite possibly the most depraved and shocking film of all time is no small feat considering the vomitous limits that have been pushed by film-makers over the past few decades especially. Though it perhaps feels like a film that should only be acquired on an unlabelled, worn-out bootlegged VHS, A Serbian Film has finally made its legitimate debut in Region 1 on both DVD and Blu-ray so audiences can finally partake in all of the hysterics.
It only seems fitting that the filmís protagonist is retired porn star Miloö (Srdjan Todorovic), who has now settled down with his wife (Jelena Gavrilovic) and son. Though he occasionally misses his former life, he only returns when money is tight, which leaves the door open for a shady director (Sergej Trifunovic) to make him an offer he canít refuse. Claiming to be making a cutting edge art house film that will redefine Serbian cinema, the smooth-talking Vukmir lures Miloö into action once again. In actuality, he finds that heís been drawn into a twisted, nightmarish underworld of snuff film, as he is soon forced to engaged in horrific actions that endanger his soul and his life.
I think usually this would be the place where Iíd say A Serbian Film lived up to expectations, but that sounds a little bit too affirmative and jocular. Instead, Iíll just say itís pretty much exactly what youíve heard: completely sick, perverse, and grim. However, if you also managed to listen beyond those descriptors, you may have heard that this isnít a film without merit--it certainly has some, and Iíll get to that. But first, letís just talk about what an assault this film is, even though it oddly doesnít really begin as one. At first, I wondered if this wasnít like The Human Centipede all over again; that was another film with a gag-worthy reputation that ended up really being kind of silly. Serbian Film begins surprisingly light-hearted, as Miloö and his wife find their son watching one of his old porn tapes; discussions about the boyís first experience with sexual arousal ensue, and we also learn that the family is quite happy and normal, with the exception of Miloöís brother, a cop with a severe inferiority complex and sexual inadequacies. Even the eventual villain, Vukmir, is kind of inviting at first, as he makes outrageous jokes about Miloöís legendary penis and sexual stamina.
All that doesnít last for too long, however. Somewhere around the half hour mark, this thing descends hard and fast into some of the most reprehensible corners of the human mind. If you could bottle up and distill pure misanthropy and then commit it to celluloid, it would look like a whole lot like A Serbian Film. When stark portrayals of rape, degrading money shots, and physical abuse of women is but the tip of the iceberg, just know that youíre in for a long, disconcerting journey through a grimy warehouse whose walls are lined with pedophilia, necrophilia, and brutal murders (one of which is among one of the most disturbing Iíve ever seen). Everything eventually culminates in a depraved, ungodly twist that ranks right up there with the likes of School of the Holy Beast and Oldboy in terms of being purely, simply fucked up.
Aside from a couple of instances that are almost too outlandish and over the top, this is pretty much some of the most disturbing stuff youíll ever witness. Itís not scary in the traditional sense that itíll make you immediately fear all of these things happening to you, but it should unsettle you to know that this stuff exists in the filthy, unseemly corners of the globe. Really, following Miloö as he has to uncover what heís perpetrated is the most effective part of it; as he was drugged the entire time, heís forced to go back and recover his memory by watching footage of these horrors. Few films have managed to so thoroughly tear down a character, as heís plunged to unrecoverable depths of despair and torment. Had he been built up to a completely empathetic character, this might have been even more effective; however, the nihilism is eventually overpowering, and it sometimes seems like the shocking events take precedence over who they're actually happening to.
That you can feel the terror of Miloö's downfall speaks to the craftsmanship involved; as (intentionally) reprehensible as A Serbian Film is, itís difficult to deny the power of the performances and the overall technical proficiency. Though Iím not a fan of its somewhat pallid cinematography, something tells me itís deliberately muted; I donít think weíre supposed to enjoy looking at this movie on any level, so itís captured with an almost distilled reality. Plus, some of the scenes do almost capture a sort of snuffy authenticity, perhaps because much of it is relayed by the footage Miloö finds. While many complaints can be leveled at the content of A Serbian Film, Srdjan Spasojevicís status as an artist with something to say is indisputable-- it just so happens that heís saying a lot of unpleasant things.
I donít know if youíd call his approach admirable, but it is certainly unflinching; in its relentless exploration of the darker recesses of humanity, A Serbian Film manages to be just that: a purely Serbian experience, reflecting decades of the nationís anxieties and anguish. Having only recently emerged from the shadow of a despotic Socialist regime (most infamously highlighted by the ethnic cleansing policies of Slobodan Milosevic), Serbia is a nation still carrying many scars. Really, theyíre more akin to pulsating scabs that are being picked, and their unrelenting ugliness are on display. A lot of this stuff might be lost in translation, but the film is hardly unsubtle about all of this; long passages like the one quoted above provide an insight into Serbian frustrations. Usually, this might be a little bit too obvious or heavy-handed, but when youíre making a movie as explicit and overbearing as this, it kind of follows that the message hits you over the head just as bluntly. Ultimately, this is a film thatís all about force; just as Miloö is forced to engage in acts (and, in turn, forces others to participate with him), so too are audiences forced to face the shattered psyche of a nation thatís been victimized and called worthless (thereís a clear parallel here with the brother character).
And really, A Serbian Film is a repudiation of all of these things; weíre supposed to be repulsed and sickened, so it firmly accomplishes that, even if that's a cheap and obvious point to make. Spasojevic is obviously raising questions about art as well--at what point does pornography transcend into artfulness and just become a reflection of life itself? Iím probably not qualified to answer that question, but this is definitely a smart film thatís not only pushing the envelope (okay, actually, itís setting the envelope on fire), but also fighting for its right to do so. Since artistic struggle is at the center of this film, itís almost ironic that the aforementioned DVD release from Invincible Pictures is actually an edited version of the film. About three minutes are trimmed from two of its most infamous sequences: one involves the rape of a newborn child thatís just been ripped from its motherís womb, while the other is another instance of pedophilia. Neither scene is excised outright, but they are carefully cut around; despite this, I think I can still safely say theyíre among the most repugnant things Iíve ever seen.
This is not to say I condone this blatant censorship (not at all--I think this should have been released completely uncut like any other movie), the impact is maybe only slightly diluted. So, fair warning--the Blu-ray and DVD are heralded as being unrated, but they arenít uncut. Still, itís a fine release, particularly the high def offering, which features a flawless transfer and a robust DTS-MA stereo track. Whether or not you should actually pick it up is debatable. If anything, A Serbian Film is the type of movie that wreaks havoc with a ratings or recommendation system; this is a difficult film to endorse, but I can say that it thoroughly accomplishes what it sets out to do because my eyeballs are likely scarred for life from this film. I doubt Iíll be able to unsee many of its more graphic sequences, which makes a revisit unlikely. As such, this feels like a movie that youíll probably want to see once but never again after that. Itís legitimately joyless, dreadful, and vile, which means it completely earns its reputation, which is something very few films of this nature can claim. Rent it!
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