Srdjan Spasojevic, 2010
Starring: Srdjan Torodovic, Sergej Trifunovic, Gelena Javrilovic, Katarina Zutic
I bet you were wondering when I was going to get around to reviewing A Serbian Film? I've had a screener of it for quite a few months now, but when I found out it was coming to the Philadelphia Film Fest I decided I should wait and see it on the big screen (and with an audience).
Despite its numerous flaws, I have a real soft spot for this film and can appreciate what it's trying to do. A Serbian Film and the superior Life and Death of a Porno Gang were easily two of my favorite films of 2010 (along with The Temptation of St. Tony). Yes, part of the film is really just about shock value, but I don't see why that prevents the film from also being enjoyable. It's well acted, well directed, relatively well written, and at least attempts to push the limits of social acceptance and transgression as much as it can. And if you read this blog, you know that I love transgression for transgression's sake more than almost anything on this earth. That and Mr. Spock.
Retired porn star Milos (Srdjan Torodovic) desperately needs money to support his family. An old colleague, Lejla, connects Milos to an art-film director, Vukmir, who has full funding, government support, and wants to make a mysterious art-porno film. Milos reluctantly signs up and goes on a demented Alice in Wonderland-style adventure full of rape, incest, necrophilia, and many other horrors. There will be NO spoilers in this review.
Co-written by director Spasojevic and Aleksandar Radivojevic, a Serbian writer, film critic and son of director Milos Radivojevic (he also wrote Tears for Sale), I have to give both of these men a lot of credit. The level of professionalism and technical ability, particularly for a debut film, is impressive. They managed to get popular actors involved in the production and an accomplished cinematographer. A Serbian Film was (and still is at the time of writing this article) scorned by the Serbian government. It is allegedly the first film in decades that has been completely funded by a director rather than the Serbian government. Though it has had a level of success (or at least reputation) at foreign festivals, there are still no plans for it to be distributed in Serbia, though you can now find a PAL Region 2 DVD from Revolver.
This film has become famous because of how horrible it is, which is something of an achievement in itself. According to Spasojevic, the film is a litany to the years of rape, violence, and genocide that occurred in Serbia. Whether "feeling the violence" is possible in A Serbian Film or not, I'm not sure how I feel about this statement. A lot of reviewers seem to take it as bullshit, but I think you have to look at the bigger picture, namely the state of Serbian cinema over the last couple of years. To think that widespread cultural trauma -- civil war, genocide, and country-wide rape -- wouldn't make it into a nation's cinema is ridiculous. Whether or not Spasojevic was successful with this or not is certainly up for debate, but the strong anti-government sentiment is clear and cannot be ignored.
My biggest criticism is the sharp divide between the first and second halves of the film. I can say, without hesitation, that the first half is enjoyable and promising. It is dark, suspenseful, and in certain ways more upsetting than the second half, which contains the brunt of the violence.
The second half is something else entirely. On the surface level, it lives up to its reputation for horror and extreme violence, containing a few scene that are hard to top. But there is a level of farce that I think will pass by a lot of viewers. I've seen worse in the sense that I was more viscerally impacted. Irreversible, Antichrist, Salo, and In a Glass Cage are all far more effective films that leave behind a lingering sense of trauma and horror. A Serbian Film didn't stay with me for very long. Like Life and Death of a Porno Gang, violence is absolute, but, in an underlying sense, it is so inevitable and in your face that it becomes farcical. And I'm OK with that.
I can't recommend the film, because of how extreme it is, but I enjoyed it. It's not the type of film I want to watch repeatedly, but it's the sort of bluntly provocative film that is worth checking out at least once, if only to take part in the academic and critical debate that surrounds the film. However, if you're not used to graphic, onscreen violence, you will probably want to avoid it.
Edit: Now I'm reading rumors that it did have a Serbian premier in Novi Sad in June of 2011 and was released in theaters in Serbia at the end of September, which means that Serbians were watching it at the same time I was. There's also a DVD.