A Serbian Film ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Milos is a retired Serbian porn actor, trying to make a break from his previous occupation to be a father and husband. The future is looking bleak however as the cash reserves from his porn career are dwindling. Potential salvation arrives in the shape of Lejla (a former co-star). She approaches Milos with an offer to star in an artistic porn film for a considerable fee. Milos meets with the director Vukmir, a charismatic and apparently cultured man with a background in child psychology. Vukmir has one condition for Milos, he will not be told the plot or content of the film, and rather he will be placed in a situation and expected to react whilst being filmed. It could be the set up for a pornographic version of reality television. Milos is reluctant, but he needs the money, and with his wife’s backing he agrees to participate.

Thus begins a swirling maelstrom of sex, violence and sexual violence so extreme that searching for benchmarks is agonizingly difficult. It is fair to say that even in the BBFC cut version now available on UK DVD and Blu Ray this will be the most extreme genre release of the year. Even cut by over four minutes the film is extremely graphic. I cannot imagine that this cut version would ever have been released if submitted in the eighties or nineties. If you want a box quote - A SERBIAN FILM makes most of the DDP video nasties list look like extended episodes of TELETUBBIES.

But extremity for extremities sake is a poor standard for viewing a film. If you are in the business of watching controversial films and ticking them off a list, then you will be no doubt be looking forward to this release and nothing I say is likely to alter your decision to view. For those who aren’t drawn to the whiff of transgression like a moth to a flame, the question is, will this film be a worthwhile experience? To that I say - approach with extreme caution.

A SERBIAN FILM is being labeled as a horror film by most commentators, I disagree with this assessment, and in fact as a horror film I do not think it is particularly effective. It isn’t particularly scary and it isn’t a thrill ride, had it not been pulled from the lineup of last August’s FrightFest it would have been very interesting to have seen how this played with a large audience. I’m willing to bet that the whooping and cheering that greeted the “revenge” section of the odious I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE remake would have been absent. Even among a hardcore horror audience I think this film would have been too much for many.

A SERBIAN FILM is far closer to film noir than classic horror. Take the brief synopsis in the first paragraph of this review. Now instead of being a porn star imagine Milos is a retired mobster trying to go straight. It’s the setup for a classic crime noir. In fact the second half of the film is built around Milos trying to piece together events from evidence after having been drugged. This is starting to sound even more like a noir right? Milos is a classic noir character. It might seem strange to call a retired hardcore porn actor an innocent but in the dangerous world Milos has stumbled into he very much is. As ever more disturbing and horrific details emerge about the nature of Vukmir’s film, it becomes apparent that Milos is not only way out of his depth, but has put himself and his family in terrible danger. In some ways the best benchmark for A SERBIAN FILM is David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET. This was also a neo-noir with strong elements of sexualized horror and violence. This is not to say that Spasojevic’s film approaches Lynch’s classic in terms of artistic success or quality.

A SERBIAN FILM has attracted fierce criticism from both right and left wing press, and has been variously described as irredeemable exploitation trash, or a vacuous exercise in shock for shock’s sake. I would refute the first accusation straight away. Having seen this film, the idea that it has been made as a quick route to filthy lucre is ridiculous. There are plenty of notorious examples of such films, the whole sexy nazisploitation genre for example (represented by films like THE BEAST IN HEAT, LOVE CAMP 7, and SS EXPERIMENT CAMP). A SERBIAN FILM bears little resemblance to such campy nonsense. It is simply far too extreme, and far too troubling, to realistically attract a mass exploitation audience. So far the film has been released in only two markets, Serbia and the UK. It apparently failed to find an audience in Serbia with a €6,975 box office haul (according to IMDB). In the UK it was banned from a series of genre festivals, was shown at Raindance at a screening with entry restrictions so severe that a PHD in child psychology may still not have gained access, and has eventually been released only after severe BBFC cuts. It has been banned outright in Australia. In short if Spasojevic thought this would be the road to riches he was wildly mistaken.

A more potent argument against the success of the film is that the extremity of its imagery and content is not justified by its message. It is clear that Spasojevic intends his film to be read as an allegory for the turbulent recent history of Serbia. He has stated that A SERBIAN FILM is “a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government... It's about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do.” Spasojevic justifies the films extremes by adding that “you have to feel the violence to know what it’s about.”

It is here that I believe Spasojevic and his film become unstuck. While this is clearly an attempt to present a political allegory it is often muddled and hard to divine from the narrative. While Milos is a reasonably rounded character conforming to conventions of the noir hero, other characters such as Vukmir, his minions, and the briefly glimpsed shadowy backers of his film, feel overly like symbols of “the state” rather than characters and thus they lack real motivations. It is impossible (for me at least) to see quite what the point of Vukmir’s film actually is. He increasingly appears to be a madman, but why then does it seem that he has quasi-state backing?

However ultimately any serious message in the film becomes lost in its last third, as the film becomes increasingly violent and gory. Eventually the barrage of splatter becomes a tidal wave washing away the fragile allegory and leaving the viewer in a shell-shocked stupor. Even sat in the front row of the Prince Charles cinema in London (where I first viewed the film) I felt emotionally disengaged while viewing, only to have the film detonate like a timed explosive device in my cranium the minute I left the theatre.

A star rating for this film seems superfluous; this is a film that will be appreciated by a niche section of a niche audience. You already know if you want to brave it. I will add that the four minutes of cuts have been very well handled by the film’s UK distributor Revolver and while there are a couple of scenes that you will know have been cut when they arrive, it is difficult to see the joins. Certainly I would recommend that if you do wish to see this movie you buy or rent the official release (and if after that you want to seek out the uncut version, well on your head be it, but you won’t find it that hard to source).

A SERBIAN FILM is well made, and I believe it is a genuine howl of agony from a filmmaker with great potential, but it is not a complete artistic success.

Three stars if you dare, but if you don’t think you need to see it, then you don’t need to see it.

Review originally appeared on www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/