Ever since its world premiere at last year’s South by Southwest festival A Serbian Film has been dogged by (and sometimes courted) the dreaded word ‘controversy’. This brutal political allegory (flimsily disguised and marketed as a horror movie), has been refused a certificate in Australia (essentially a banning order) and withdrawn and banned respectively from Frightfest in the UK and the 21st Horror and Fantasy Film Festival in San Sebastian, Spain. The decision to market the film as a horror genre or ‘torture porn’ piece, whilst probably to be expected, does the film a disservice, anyone expecting cheap thrills a la Saw or Hostel will find some of the more outre sequences in A Serbian Film go (graphically and metaphorically) way beyond anything seen in those risible franchises. Where the ‘torture porn’ movies seemingly exist purely to allow teenagers to see scantily clad females endure pointless acts of cruelty this movie has its eyes set very firmly on social, cultural and political themes, however brutally they are portrayed.
Directed by the debutant Serbian national Srdjan Spasojevic, the independently financed A Serbian Film has joined the ranks of other extreme, notorious and censor baiting movies such as The Last House on the Left, A Clockwork Orange, Salo: 120 Days of Sodom and Irreversible. Ostensibly a tale of washed up, semi-retired porn star Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) accepting a huge pay offer to ease his family’s financial problems by starring in a ‘new’ kind of porno, the movie is also a blunt and provocative allegory of Serbia’s recent war torn decades. The mysterious film-maker Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), his crew, and their shadowy backers, barely concealed versions of state backed thugs and their paymasters, are creating a snuff movie in which the hapless, and increasingly recalcitrant, ‘star’ is drugged and coerced into committing all manner of atrocities in the name of entertainment. With the majority of the sexual abuse, violence and humiliation in the film being suffered by women and children the symbolic comparisons between the horrific war crimes reported during the Balkan conflicts is easy to see. After slowly drawing the viewer into this underworld the film unleashes a tidal wave of increasingly extreme set pieces, shown partly through Milo’s own drug induced flashbacks and his watching of the recorded footage. Sexual violence, child abuse, necrophilia, incest, rape of both genders and murder shown onscreen or implied represent the destruction and terrible experiences of Serbia, its citizens and by extension the other countries of the former Yugoslavia. Whether or not this is the best way to approach those painful issues or if those themes with resonate with viewers is open to question, but either way you’re unlikely to forget its transgressive imagery.
Covering all manner of genres, ranging from family drama, mystery, thriller, crime and sexploitation, the film, and its darkly brilliant electronic soundtrack, contains many unforgettably unpleasant sequences and some blackly comic laughs, all underscored by a deep anger and desperate nihilism. Rarely have I seen a film in which the violence is so unremittingly confrontational and graphic. However, when you think of the casual misogyny, escalating body-counts and offhand violence seen in many mainstream Hollywood movies its hard to take the outraged responses and criticisms of A Serbian Film’s extreme approach seriously. It is not subtle, sophisticated or particularly novel, but it succeeds in its allegorical representation of a nation and its citizens as being suppressed, driven apart, degraded and victimized.
Technically well made and with higher production values than many debut independent productions Spasojevic’s film is bound to polarize opinions, as evidenced by many of the conflicting reviews it has garnered. Wrongly dismissed in some critical quarters as being nothing but tasteless exploitation and loved in others for its taboo shattering imagery A Serbian Film falls somewhere between the two points, more intelligent than many give it credit for but also shamelessly appealing to an excitable audience demographic who love ‘shocking’ material. Released straight to DVD here in the UK minus over four minutes of footage taken in 49 separate cuts by the BBFC A Serbian Film will be far too extreme for mainstream audiences and many genre fans just seeking popcorn thrills. Watching the movie is an intense and bruising experience fueled by disillusionment, rage and helplessness. With the bleakest of endings, featuring the most nihilistic last lines of dialogue, don’t expect to see the English language remake anytime soon.