The controversial horror flick A Serbian Film lit up the festival circuit last year with shock and eww. It even led to charges of child pornography being brought against the director of Spain’s Sitges Film Festival just for showing it. So, me being me, I naturally had to see it for myself. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Well, I needn’t have bothered. There’s nothing to see here really. Oh sure, there are horrors aplenty, but A Serbian Film is just a toothless celluloid tiger representing nothing more than an hour and 43 minutes I’d rather have back. Calculated for maximum shock and outrage, it doesn’t even succeed on its own terms because it takes cover behind flimsy allegory. “I can get away with showing you this,” the director is saying, “because really it’s about the horror of recent Serbian history.” That’s nonsense. If you really want to be outrageous then spare me your justifications.
The story revolves around a retired porn star named Milos, a famed cocksman prized for his ability to achieve an erection on demand who now leads a dull domestic life with his pretty wife and little boy. Needing cash and feeling a little emasculated, he’s coaxed out of retirement to perform in one last film, an un-scripted bit of supposed porn art being shot by a mysterious rich man. When Milos finds out he’s involved in a sadistic, pedophilia-steeped snuff film, he tries to quit but they drug him and he awakens three days later stained with someone else’s blood and having little memory of what has happened in the time gap. His gradual discovery of what he did and saw during those three days are the source of all of the controversy in A Serbian Film. The horror. The horror!
There are currently two versions of the film available to US audiences, a 98-minute NC-17 cut playing in a few theaters and a 103-minute unrated cut available online. I watched the unrated version, but even that has supposedly been slightly edited. Note: The rest of this paragraph spoils the worst of what the film has to offer so if you’re an idiot like me and plan to see it anyway, skip ahead to the next paragraph. If nothing else, you’ll have the element of surprise. On the other hand, if you don’t care and just want to know what all the fuss is about without having to sit through it yourself, read on. There are two acts that are kept completely off screen in the version I saw: the rape of a freshly born infant while the mother looks on smilingly and Milos’ anal rape of a young boy (which by the way we’re supposed to be shocked to learn is Milos’ own son but we’re not because we can see it coming a mile away). I assume these scenes are where the editing has taken place and are the source of controversy, but there are still plenty of other graphic acts on display for your revulsion. If the doggy style rape of a woman chained to a bed followed by her decapitation and still more rape while her stump of a neck spurts blood doesn’t turn your stomach, then surely the chained naked woman who has had her teeth pulled out and is then forced to perform bloody oral sex before being choked to death by the very same penis will.
The strange thing is I think these things sound worse on paper than they come across on screen. It’s disturbing, yes, but I think the impact of the film is watered down a bit when you go in knowing something unspeakably horrible is going to happen. If I’d seen the movie without any expectations or knowledge of what it was about, it’s possible I’d have been suitably horrified. At the same time though, there’s a deadening effect to knowing the filmmaker is just trying to provoke you. If it seemed like Srdjan Spasojevic had made the film for his own jollies, I might have been more disturbed. Instead, he’s obviously trying to push the audience’s buttons and to test how far they’re willing to go along with him. Instead of horror, I felt mostly annoyance and regret I’d gotten myself into the situation. At the same time, I was compelled to finish it so I could at least form a viable opinion of the whole thing.
As noted above, Spasojevic is trying for some kind of allegory about what happened in Serbia during and after the wars in the 90s. This is weak sauce, but I’ll allow there is some real horror in imagining what that experience must have been like that it led to the despair and rage that fuels this ugly little film. Where Spasojevic is possibly more successful is in raising some red flags about pornography and its impact on the people who make it and the people who consume it. There’s a scene at the beginning where Milos’ little boy of 7 or 8 has discovered one of his father’s old DVDs and is treated to an extended scene of dad plugging away at some woman in an alley. When I was that age, I might have stumbled across the odd Playboy or Penthouse and I think I turned out mostly ok, but what about this generation that is growing up with the internet where everything is permissible and anything is available? What kind of psychological impact is that going to have? I don’t know and Spasojevic doesn’t seem to either. I’m not even sure he cares or if he appreciates the irony that he’s a part of it, but it crossed my mind as I was watching the horrors of A Serbian Film unspool before me. So I guess there’s that.
In the end, a film like this draws much of its power by only being seen by a few yet talked about by many. It takes on the power of myth like the unseen monster in the closet. The more people who see it and call bullshit on it however, the less likely it will ever be remembered.
Filed under: Review