A SERBIAN FILM (2011) (**1/2)
Is this the most disturbing film ever made? Many have said so. A great deal depends on what you bring to it. A fan of extreme cinema might find it less provocative than say someone who sticks to PG inspirational films. It contains graphic depictions of rape, necrophilia and pedophilia. Many of the concepts are some of the vilest ideas I've ever seen in any film. It stands in infamy with the likes of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and SALO. But is it simply exploitation or something more?
Milos (Srdan Todorovic) is a retired porn star that has settled down in a simple domestic life with his beautiful wife Marija (Jelena Gavrilovic) and adorable young son Petar. His former co-star Lejla (Katarina Žutic) offers him a once in a lifetime opportunity to work on an art porn film for the auteur Vukmir Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic). The money would set up Milos and his family for life, but he worries about the secrecy surrounding what he will have to do.
The first day of filming is disturbing, so Milos asks his brother Marko (Slobodan Beštic), a Serbian cop, to look into his director. When he discovers that Vukmir was a former child psychologist, he goes to back out. Vukmir explains the film is a representation of the Serbian people and then shows Milos a video that would make any father vomit. Milos flees, but he has been drugged and when he wakes up bloodied in his own bed. He then sets out to piece together what has been done to him and worse what he may have done to others over the past three days.
Director Srdan Spasojevic has high intentions for sure. The film begins with an arthouse looking title with traditional Serbian music and is then smashed by an aggressive looking title and a hard driving metal soundtrack. The provocateur isn't solely set on shock. This isn't HUMAN CENTIPEDE or total trash like MURDER SET PIECES. He makes us care about Milos and his family. Milos gets in over his head and must seek out his missing family. Spasojevic makes the whole experience like a twisted ALICE IN WONDERLAND with Milos falling deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. Vukmir tortures the man past anything anyone could endure.
So what is Spasojevic trying to say? He presents the idea that the Serbian government screws its citizens from the moment they are born. The metaphor is literally that. There is nothing subtle about it. The sex and violence is pervasive and often way over the top. One could also read a comment on the dangerous direction gonzo porn is going too. But like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and its comment on the extremes documentarians will go in exploiting their subjects, the excesses of A SERBIAN FILM undermine the message and work to support the very problem it hopes to critique.
Especially when it comes to any comment on sex, the film falls apart. The first scene finds Petar watching one of his dad's old films. His father and mother seem to not care one bit. When Petar asks about the wheels that turn down there, Milos explains to him how to masturbate. The kid is like eight or nine. This is supposed to be an innocent portrayal of childhood sexual curiosity to contrast the kiddie porn elements that Vukmir exploits, but it all has the same creepy effect. As for its comment on sexual violence, a sex scene between Milos and Marija seems to say, "Go gonzo."
All of this is presented with skill. Nemanja Jovanov's cinematography is slick. This doesn't look like an ugly exploitation film. Spasojevic's torture porn is certainly more thoughtful than HOSTEL where it beats us with gruesomeness and than makes us feel like fools for caring about the victims. Milos' experience is always the focus. It's absolutely key to recognize that many of the horrid things Milos is forced to do we watch only as he pieces them back together in order to find his family. The audience isn't mercilessly being subjected to him helplessly victimized and victimize over and over again.
Yet some of the sexually perverse kill scenes seem to be there solely to be there. Someone doesn't make a film like this without the hope of shocking people. But each shock needs to be tied to the message to really be affective and this is where Spasojevic misses the mark the most. The ending surprise is much like other surprises in extreme cinema, but far more visceral. However, the film shows its purpose to shock when Milos uses his penis as a weapon. It's so ludicrous I laughed and that is the moment when the whole thing spun off into farce.
After reading the hyperbole filled reviews coming out the festivals, I prepared myself for the experience by reading the full plot description beforehand. It certainly lessened the shock, but it also freed me to watch the film, because I had already experienced the revulsion from the reading the Wikipedia description. My first time was like seeing it for the second time and the shocks don't hold up. They start to become comical because they are so extreme.
Some of the most shocking elements of this film are those not seen. If Spasojevic had kept this in mind more often, he might have created an even more provocative film. Just because you can show something horrible that no one has shown before doesn't mean it's a good idea. Nothing here stands as the most disturbing thing I've ever seen on film. Nothing is like the nine-minute rape scene in IRREVERSIBLE. Nothing is like the cat violation in LEOLO. Nothing is like the prostitution or drug scenes in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. Nothing is like the murders in ICHI THE KILLER. Nothing is like the home invasion scene in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. Nothing is like the genitalia mutilation in ANTICHRIST. What these shocking scenes have that A SERBIAN FILM doesn't is that they are one shocking scene within a larger less shocking film. Spasojevic wants to shock us every ten minutes. You can only get in someone's face and scream "boo" so many times before they just get pissed at you for it.