Srđan Spasojević's feature debut, A Serbian Film, focuses on aging male porn star Milos who is lured by the promise of a big pay day into shooting another movie by a mysterious director who goes by the name of Vukmir. As the shoot progresses he finds himself increasingly alarmed by the tone of the movie and the acts he is required to perform. When he tries to quit things take a downward spiral into some very dark territory.
A Serbian Film is a provocative, uncompromising and at times upsetting thriller with an undercurrent of allegory that, while failing the subtlety test as surely as the movie upon which it is hung fails the good taste test, is nonetheless present and bruisingly effective. I was nervous about watching it after having been told that it contained images and scenes that I would wish I could unsee. Images that would lodge themselves in my brain that I would never be free of. I expected it to trouble my sleep. I anticipated waking up thinking about it, my skin crawling with revulsion, racked with shame and self-hatred that I had watched it and outraged that someone would ever deign to present such profane acts in the name of entertainment. It did none of these things to me to. I was moved somewhat but less so than anticipated. So should I instead be ashamed that I am so unaffected? Should I feel guilt that I slept like a baby and awoke thinking only about what I might have for breakfast? Have I been numbed by witnessing too many terrible acts of violence throughout my years as a fan of horror cinema? Should I be wondering why A Serbian Film no matter how hard it tries (and it tried very hard) is less shocking, less emotionally brutalising than, for example, Tim Roth’s brilliant adaptation of The War Zone or Lars Von Trier’s emotional acid bath Antichrist? Perhaps. More importantly though, does the fact that it fails to elicit the extreme response it strives so ardently for mean that the movie has failed in it's mission? Not entirely. A Serbian Film is certainly shocking. But so gleeful is it in it's attempts to brand its more contentious moments onto the consciousness of the viewer that it succeeds at times only in hurtling off the edge of a cliff into the sea of the absurd.
In terms of aesthetic this is a well shot movie. Remarkably so for a directorial debut. I was expecting something cheap and nasty but Spasojević’s movie is a polished effort. Cinematographer Nemanja Jovanov is a real talent and the end result is visually accomplished and often surprisingly beautiful. In terms of the performances it's also largely well-acted by all involved. Particularly impressive is Srdjan Todorovic who has some very difficult scenes as Milos, the down at heel porn star who longs for the glory days. The last half of the movie, as he pieces together the sequence of events, the terrible acts he was forced to perform and the implications these acts have not only for him but also for his family plays out like a descent into the worst kind of personal hell. This is a movie that asks a lot of him as an actor, both physically and emotionally, and he absolutely nails it. Most everyone else acquits themselves equally well but I was less impressed by Sergej Trifunovic as Vukmir, the mysterious, machiavellian monster who orchestrates Milos' descent into hell but that's perhaps more a problem with the script than the actual performance.
In the face of the outraged critical reception the movie received back in 2010 when it hit the festival circuit, director Spasojević issued a statement in defence of his movie. He said, "This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government. We're giving this back to you." He also argued that the central theme of rape-murder has a point. "It's about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don't want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it's about.” Some have suggested that any claims of a political subtext in A Serbian Film are spurious at best; that these claims are the desperate words of an apologist in the face of a harsh critique. Spasojević has been accused of trying somewhat desperately to dress the tawdry vileness of his movie as something other than the exercise in torture porn it seems to be on the surface in an attempt to give it the more respectable façade of a symbolism forged in anger. I think the real question should be does the end justify the means? The allegory is definitely there but is it rendered ineffective by the unsubtle nature of the vehicle that delivers it? I would say no. The point of the movie is delivered with all the subtlety of a brick through a window but delivered it is.
But political subtext be damned; A Serbian Film works first and foremost as a thriller. As a personal spiral into damnation with greed as the catalyst. While it's undoubtedly not the sort of movie you would sit down with your grandmother to watch it's also not the total abomination it has been accused of being. It's neither as meretricious as its critics suggest nor as intelligent as its champions claim. It's undoubtedly shocking if at the same time guilty of pushing that particular envelope a little bit harder than necessary which renders the scene for which the movie has become infamous somewhat absurd. If you're are a fan of movies that push the boundaries of what is acceptable into dangerous territory this is a movie you can't afford to miss. But in that regard you should prepare yourself to be slightly disappointed. As a thriller A Serbian Film works but as a piece of forbidden cinema it lacks the emotional resonance and subtlety to be truly subversive. That said there's a lot here that works and I enjoyed it more than I expected. Spasojević is definitely a talent to watch.