THIS REVIEW DOES CONTAIN LIMITED SPOILERS
A Vulgar Display of Power
Director Srđan Spasojević might have been a tad angry when he wrote and directed 2010’s A Serbian Film. The artist’s penchant for vulgarity seethes through the movie. He clearly wanted to create a film that would be the ultimate statement of transgressive art. While recent films like Hereditary, The Witch and The Babadook have employed subtle imagery and complex thematic elements to tell an intricate story with the calculated precision of a drill, A Serbian Film opts for the bombastic assault of a sledge hammer.
Spasojević has lambasted the Serbian government and the Serbian film industry, on several occasions, for its alleged attempts to manipulate its citizens by establishing a culture of political correctness. Evidently America isn’t the only country afraid to offend anyone. Spasojević has stated that A Serbian Film is a metaphorical reflection of that situation, which he characterizes as a fascist system.
I can’t think of a film less concerned with political correctness or societal taboos than A Serbian Film. It makes Bob Guccione’s Caligula seem like a quaint exploration of a boisterous young ruler. The movie contains explicit and implicit scenes of pedophilia, necrophilia, rape, child abuse, incest and, at one point, sexual intercourse with a person’s eye socket. I’m not sure what to call that… A Serbian Film might be the most extreme example of transgressive art, but is it a good movie? Is Spasojević’s crusade against the tyranny of political correctness coherent? Is it the most shocking film ever? Let’s discuss.
Miloš (played by Srđan Todorović) is an aging, but accomplished, porn star with his best days behind him. He is blessed with a beautiful wife, Maria (Jelena Gavrilović) and a ten-year old son. He also has a brother, Marko, a cop who masturbates to sexual fantasies of Maria when he’s off duty. The family runs into financial trouble and Miloš needs access to cash fast. He connects with a former colleague that urges him to get in touch with Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović), a rising talent in the Serbian porn community.
Vukmir and Miloš meet and the filmmaker begs him to sign a contract and play the lead role in his upcoming film. There’s a catch. Vukmir refuses to tell Miloš any details about the film, which makes Miloš reluctant to sign, but he ultimately does. Maria (who is completely fine with her husband’s profession) is elated by the financial prospects of the project.
Miloš is picked up by a chauffeur and taken to the set, an abandoned orphanage, the next day. Armed guards with cameras record Miloš and disturbing scenes of bizarre family drama unfold around him as Vukmir directs him through an ear piece. Miloš sees a guard beating a woman. The woman crawls over to Miloš and fellates him while her adolescent daughter watches.
Uncomfortable with the direction and mystery of the film’s production, Miloš asks Marko to conduct a background check on Vukmir. He learns that Vukmir used to be a child psychologist for the government. In the morning, Miloš tells Vukmir that he wants to quit. Vukmir tries to calm Miloš’ reservations by elaborating on his directorial philosophy. He shows Miloš a video of a woman giving birth. One of Vukmir’s henchman delivers the baby. He then proceeds to rape the baby.
Sidenote: Anyone familiar with the South Park creators’ masterpiece musical The Book of Mormon will get a slight kick out of that last part. Everyone else…sorry.
Vukmir proclaims his new creative revelation: newborn porn. Miloš is disgusted and storms out of the building. On his way home, he drunkenly picks up a scantily-clad nurse walking down the sidewalk. She turns out to be Vukmir’s nurse and drugs Miloš with a powerful serum that turns him into an oversexed stallion with amnesia.
Miloš, bloody and hungover, wakes up alone in his bed three days later. He heads back to the abandoned film set and attempts to figure out what happened over the course of the last few days and determine where his family is. Through discarded film reels, Miloš relives the sordid events of his inebriated film shoot. His detective work leads him back to Vukmir, who has already set the stage for the film’s grand finale.
I won’t spoil it for you.
WRITING & CHARACTERIZATION
There are some languages that don’t translate well to English and vice versa. German is one such language. I love the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzche but the English translations of his works don’t flow with the organic tempo of the writer’s native tongue. I believe that A Serbian Film suffers from the same issue. It’s particularly debilitating to the film’s antagonist. Often spouting vague, philosophical musings about the meaning of his blasphemous art, Vukmir comes across like a goofy bond-villain character. Spasojević was obviously going for an evil genius like Hannibal Lecter or the Joker, but Vukmir is more reminiscent of Goldfinger. The film was co-written by Aleksandar Radivojević and the director, Srđan Spasojević. I realize that I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt in assuming that the actual dialogue is better than the translated dialogue, but it’s a risk that I’m willing to take.
Aside from Vukmir, the acting is quite good. Todorović’s Miloš is relatable, if somewhat apathetic to the world. But then again, I suppose that a veteran porn star might not be easily stimulated. I thought the scenes where Miloš is drugged were acted quite well. The character is essentially “hate-fucking” anything that’s placed in front of him. Miloš pounds away at his victims with a look in his eyes that’s as authentic as it is over-the-top. It’s somewhat of a paradox. Jelena Gavrilović’s Maria was my favorite performance. Her love for her family is evident and her cavalier attitude about her husband’s profession seems to be a symptom of extreme confidence. There’s one scene where Marko is clearly drooling over her. She has a bit of fun with him and toes the line between innocence and playful provocateur easily.
A big issue that I have with the plot involves Marko. Without giving too much away, Marko betrays Miloš in a very fundamental way. If someone were to watch the last fifteen minutes of the movie, she would likely walk away from it believing that Marko, not Vukmir, was the main villain of the story. Until this point, all we know about Marko is that he’s a cop who longs for the right female companion and appears to be jealous of Miloš’ wife and Miloš’ sexual prowess. The grand betrayal at the end is supposed to be shocking, but it’s merely odd.
The technical qualities of the film are its strongest point. The grainy cinematography compliments the dark rooms and spartan settings that characterize A Serbian Film. The music shifts from creepy piano music, perhaps symbolizing the economic woes of post-war Serbia, to pulsing industrial beats. The blood floes freely and without reservation. Most of the special effects are competently done, but unremarkable.
I am not a squeamish film-goer. I’m a big fan of extreme horror cinema. It’s very obvious that A Serbian Film wants to shock its audience. It wants to beat them into submission with violence the likes of which the world has never seen. Some scenes were genuinely disturbing. Miloš receiving a blow job from a battered mother while her young daughter watched is one such example. Others were so outlandish that they were borderline comical. I’d love to believe that the director had a motive more noble than pure disgust when he wrote a scene where the main character sticks his penis into a person’s eye socket, but that might be a stretch.
I can detect faint traces of the symbolism that Spasojević claims the film is laced with, but not enough to interest me. I found this film lackluster, not because I was offended (I wasn’t), but because it had nothing interesting to say. A Serbian Film is a gross-out gag. It has about as much political symbolism as The Evil Dead. Parts of it are darkly comical, just like Sam Raimi’s masterpiece, but unlike that film, humor is not the emotion the director desired to invoke.
If a filmmaker wants to use extreme violence and provocative themes to make a larger point, I’m all for it. I’m not offended if they use those tools and don’t make a larger point. But, more importantly, I’m not really interested in that kind of film. With great power comes great responsibility. If you’re going to push the audience into the red zone, you need to give them something substantive to chew on when they exit the theater.
RATING: Ω+(1/2)Ω (I Won’t Need Therapy But It Was Two Hours I’ll Never Get Back)
Ω – PAINFUL – Suffering through this was cruel and unusual punishment.
ΩΩ – I’VE HAD BETTER – This didn’t rock my world but it was better than a nut tap.
ΩΩΩ – GOOD – My life was enriched because of this.
ΩΩΩΩ – TANTRIC ORGASM – I will trade my soul for more of this.