A Serbian Film
2010, NC-17, 95 min. Directed by Srdjan Spasojevic. Starring Srdjan Todorovich, Sergej Trifunovic, Jelena Gavrilovic, Slobodan Bestic.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 13, 2011
Is A Serbian Film one of the most artistically audacious anti-war statements ever made? Or is it a vile and contemptible piece of subtorture-porn excrement, a sick movie about, for, and by jaded nihilists and "extreme horror" junkies? Make no mistake: Everything you've heard about this film is true (and that includes Eli Roth's "date movie" tweet). Once seen, one cannot unsee this headlong rush into the darkest corners of the inhuman heart. A Serbian Film is unforgettably disturbing and disturbingly unforgettable, and it overwhelms you in a dizzying, sickening rush, not unlike Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, or Michael Haneke's Funny Games, minus the fun and the games but with the Balkans’ blood-soaked recent history on its side and as its fundamental raison d'être. It's an exhibitionistic catalogue of taboo-obliterating, nausea-inducing atrocities … but then, so is war, especially when it happens in your backyard. It would be far easier to dismiss A Serbian Film as exploitative, morally repugnant trash had it been created anywhere but the former Yugoslavia, by a indigenous cast and crew. The unhappy tale of a happily married family man (and former porn superstar) Milos (Todorovic), A Serbian Film opens on a disturbing note: Milos' 10-year-old son is watching (uncomprehendingly) one of his father's old sex tapes. This is not a normal event in an otherwise caring and compassionate household, and Milos' wife Marija (Gavrilovic) intervenes immediately. In short order, Milos is lured out of retirement by mysterious "art porn” film director Vukmir (Trifunovic, who unsettlingly resembles real-world filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo), and is promised unspeakable riches – enough for Milos and his family to leave death-haunted Belgrade behind forever – if only he will agree to star in Vukmir's enigmatic new film. The catch? Milos will not be informed in advance what his role is. He merely has to "be himself." From here on out, A Serbian Film rapidly descends into tenebrous corners of predatory human sexuality heretofore only hinted at via various, extremely dodgy Eastern European and Asian Internet porn material that caters to a particularly twisted and potentially sociopathic (and, it must be said, often wealthy) clientele. And then … it goes even further. So much so that legal charges – centered around the film's depiction of violent sexual acts against minors – have been brought against Angel Sala, the director of Spain's renowned Sitges Fantasy and Horror Film Festival, which first screened A Serbian Film in October 2010. A Serbian Film depicts depraved and bestial acts and philosophies, to be sure, but – and this is key to comprehending both the film and the filmmaker's uncompromising artistic vision – it also demands to be seen in the context of its country of origin and the dehumanizing effects of war on both civilian and military populations. The film is strikingly shot, efficiently edited, and enormously well-acted. Todorovic, especially, crafts a tragic father figure of Shakespearean – or Old Testament – proportions. With its intent to provoke maximum outrage, A Serbian Film seethes with the nightmarish, subtextual agonies of a society fundamentally shattered by a nasty, brutish, and protracted conflict notable for the amount of sexual war crimes involved. (Human rights groups have estimated that between 50,000 and 60,000 rapes, particularly those of young girls, were systematically committed – and, depressingly, often videotaped – by Slobodan Milosovic's nationalist soldiers, paramilitaries, and police during the Bosnian War.) You could view director Spasojevic's film as the torture-porn movie to end all torture-porn movies. But that's a facile and worthless take on what is actually a far more intriguing and morally sound (if extremely difficult to watch) film experiment. Viewed through the cracked and corrupted lens of recent Balkan history, A Serbian Film feels less like a particularly nasty horror movie than a plangent, soul-searing cry for help, or a case of cinematic post-traumatic stress disorder. It's the grim allegorical vision of a filmmaker who has witnessed, firsthand, stomach-churning horrors in his native land and who has now regurgitated that fractious, national nightmare back onto the screen, daring the audience to watch and learn and, most of all, fear the true costs of war and its endlessly corruptive aftermath. Viewing the uncut version of A Serbian Film is an experience I recommend to no one. But at its agonized core it's not just a real horror show, but also a cunning indictment of war as an atavistic barbarian forever storming the gates of heaven, seeking to unleash hell on earth and winning way too often. [Note: The version of A Serbian Film currently playing in America has been edited by five-plus minutes and is not the director's approved final cut.]