A Serbian Film (2010)
By: Julian on August 23, 2011  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Director: Srdjan Spasojevic
Stars: Srdjan Todorovic, Sergej Trifunovic, Jelena Gavrilovic, Katarina Zutic, Slobodan Bestic
Screnplay: Aleksandar Radivojevic, Srdjan Spasojevic
Country: Serbia
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The jury is out on A Serbian Film, Srđan Spasojević's remarkably confrontational debut picture. There are two schools of thought that dominate criticism of A Serbian Film: the first is Belgrade filmmaker Spasojević's own explanation, that his movie sought to make a prescient social comment on Serbian socio-political mores. The second explanation is simpler: A Serbian Film is over-the-top shock cinema, designed to overpower the senses and emotionally cripple the filmgoer.

The only other instance in which these two camps – social commentary versus exploitative trash – have been so sharply divided is when Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini made Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, an anti-Fascism tome that is now widely viewed to be the director's masterpiece. Thematically, both that film and this one share some similarities: their respective reputations (although Salò, unlike A Serbian Film, has over thirty-five years' worth of reputation: more on that later) are consistently plagued by their horrific content, content that on its face may seem gratuitous and pointlessly upsetting. Pasolini, if he wished, could have channelled his anti-Fascist political leanings into a film that did not contain the torture, rape and murder of eighteen kidnapped teenagers. But the context in which Pasolini placed this broader social commentary confronted the viewer, and enabled two interpretations: those that decided to look at the film in more depth were rewarded by a highly textured, multi-layered effort, and those who chose otherwise helped, in no small part, to keep an important film banned in Australia until last year (notwithstanding a brief respite in the nineties).

I won't talk about Salò in much more depth: that excellent film has been treated to an excellent review on this site (here). However at least a rudimentary comparison between A Serbian Film and Salò seems relevant to make at the outset, at least to contextualise some of the controversy being heaped on this movie: consider the revolted reception that Pasolini's film received on its release, compared with that which it is enjoying some thirty-six years on, as a movie of some eminence and relevance. A contrast between this film and Pasolini's, worth noting as an aside, is that this celluloid equivalent of a king-hit comes at the beginning of its director's career, not at the end of it.

Those who have made it through this lengthy prologue deserve a synopsis at about this point. Srđan Todorovic plays Miloš, an ageing adult film star who believes his glory days are behind him. Miloš is not financially well-off, but he has a beautiful wife and a young son. Through a colleague, the porn star-cum-family man is approached by Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovi), a wealthy pornographer, who promises an end to Miloš's financial despondency if the actor agrees to star in one final project. The project, described by Vukmir and other of Miloš's colleagues as an 'art film', is shrouded in secrecy. Before long, it is revealed to the actor that Vukmir is making a snuff movie, and Miloš's contribution to the project metamorphoses from reluctant participation, to violent, drug-induced, impossible coercion.

The screener that I am reviewing is that which has been awarded an R18+ classification by the Classification Board. It runs for 96 minutes. The uncut version runs 99 minutes: this was Refused Classification (effectively banned) in December 2010. A revision was submitted in February 2011: this 97-minute print was also Refused Classification. It was third-time lucky for Australian distributors Accent, who had this print, shorn of three minutes of footage in total, passed in April 2011. The Australian Classification Board certainly treated A Serbian Film kinder than the BBFC (they severed just over 4-minutes), Norway (banned), Serbia (a State prosecution) and Spain (banned, and criminal charges laid against Stiges Film Festival director Àngel Sala for exhibiting the uncut print – this charge may result in prospective distributors of A Serbian Film being extremely reluctant to release it uncut, and a forthcoming Region 1 disc will supposedly be censored, an unusual turn of events for American releases, which can simply be put out 'Unrated'). Kudos should be extended to Accent: the cuts to A Serbian Film are government regulated, they are not because the distributor is trying to con the punter, and I'm of the view that a local release of a film shorn of a few minutes by government order is better than no local release. The persistence of the distributor should be rewarded because even though this is shorn of three-minutes, the cut version is witheringly effective. All of the cuts are to extreme content: they do not disturb the continuity of the film in any way. That is not to say A Serbian Film (minus three minutes) is not a violent movie: it is extreme, probably the most extreme horror film that has run the gauntlet of the Australian Classification Board.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question remains, and it is the answer to this question that creates a gaping divide between the two camps I've spoken about above: is the content of A Serbian Film too gratuitous to enable Spasojević's desired interpretation of the film as a social commentary? The director says that his film is:

...a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government... In the past 10 to 15 years, the only films made in Serbia have no connection to Serbian reality... 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.

To interpret A Serbian Film in this way doesn't requires some thought, but if you're armed with some extra information out of Spasojević, it's not too much of a stretch. If Miloš is the 'Serbian public', and Vukmir represents the corrupt leadership of despotic men like Milošević, under whom Serbia was subject to innumerable atrocities for years, then dosing Miloš to the eyeballs on drugs that make him suggestible and hyper-aggressive is in line with the narrative that Spasojević purports to tell. The idea of tyrannical leaders indoctrinating ordinary Serbs, who then become complicit in horrific violence, is well-documented (perhaps the most famous is the conviction of Bosnian Serb war criminal Duško Tadić, a café proprietor incited to violence by the nationalist Serbian leadership). Comparing the violent regime of Milošević with a fictitious snuff film industry is also probably quite apt.

The question above remains: does the gratuity of the proceedings upset such an interpretation? I think it does. Although Spasojević reckons the viewer has to "feel the violence", one suspects that the director goes just a bit too far with A Serbian Film: feeling the violence is fine, but do we have to feel quite so much?

Funnily enough, the first forty odd minutes of the film is relatively free of violence, as Spasojević introduces us to Miloš, his family, and his financial battles, and paves the way for Vukmir to come on to the scene. We see routine sexual deviancy from Miloš, his brother, and unsettling snippets on Vukmir's set. This part of the film is directed exceptionally well, with Spasojević showing restraint and talent. The performers also do particularly well, especially Todorović as Miloš, who plays the reluctant participant to a tee. The film explodes into violence in the next forty-five minutes, and although the content is outrageously strong, the violence doesn't chew up a significant chunk of the film's duration. The denouement is the part of the film that I have the most problems with: my first reaction to it was that it was hysterical, gratuitous, needlessly upsetting, horrendously violent and utterly unnecessary. The content distracts from Spasojević's alleged message; what's happening on-screen becomes harder and harder to reconcile with the director's post facto justifications. The first half of the film is very successful though, if not as a social commentary then as a suspense thriller: doomy techno music undercuts Miloš's meetings with Vukmir, and the parade of unsavoury characters (including Miloš's brother, an utterly vile creature) makes for extremely foreboding viewing.

Reactions to A Serbian Film will become more moderate as time goes on, and it is impossible to draw conclusions about this film sight unseen, because any written synopses will invariably sound far worse than what is actually being exhibited. Objectively, this is a technically competent movie, peopled by good actors, steered by a very able director, and peppered with violence of the most graphic and upsetting sort. The big question hanging over this movie is whether, subjectively, the violence detracts (or even cancels out) the message that the director says he was trying to convey. I think it does, at least to an extent. The message is still decipherable, and it is most effective during the first half of the movie, but the second act is so extreme that one wonders what Spasojević intended first: to make a social comment using confronting content, as Pasolini did; or make a confronting horror film that could be open to alternative interpretations. Confrontation is the raison d'être for horror cinema and on this ground A Serbian Film might be lauded a success. Nevertheless, it is too gruelling an experience for me to revisit this in a hurry.
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