A Serbian Film
by Jason Coffman
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A Serbian Film has finally arrived on home video in the United States, trailing behind it a notorious film festival run and a series of major cuts and bannings in various countries. Even though the U.S. home video release is unrated, the film has not made it here completely intact— according to the film’s U.S. distributor, a total of approximately 30 seconds of footage from two scenes of the film have been excised for this unrated U.S. release. However, even in its edited version, A Serbian Film is a vicious gut-punch of a film, its gut-wrenching impact only enhanced by the fact that this is obviously more than just a catalog of depravity. A Serbian Film is a ferociously angry and despairing film, and far more intelligent than the similarly-reviled but less intelligent “shock” films to which it has been unfairly compared.
Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) is a former porn star turned normal family man— more or less. He has a beautiful wife, Marija (Jelena Gavrilovic), a precocious son, a nice house and bills to pay. Milos has some cash set aside from his “acting” days, but he still has to take the occasional job to keep his head above water. One day his porn-film contact and former co-star Lejla (Katarina Zutic) brings Milos a tempting offer: a filmmaker called Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic) is preparing to shoot an “artistic pornography” in Serbia, and he wants Milos for the lead in his film. In fact, he seems to desperately need Milos in particular, and offers to pay him enough that he set for life and then some. This payment comes with a condition: Milos is not to know what he is shooting on any given day until he arrives on the set. Despite some initial misgivings, Milos is convinced by Lejla (who has worked with Vukmir before) and gets the OK from his wife.
Once the contract is signed, Milos begins trying to get back into shape for the imminent shoot. And once the shoot begins, Milos quickly realizes whatever it is they are working on is well outside the realm of his previous work. The first scene they shoot is uncomfortable but appears to be setup for the storyline of this “artistic pornography,” in which Lejla plays a nurse at an orphanage who introduces Milos to pre-teen Jeca (Andela Nenadovic) before Jeca’s mother storms in and drags her away. After this first day, the situations in which Milos finds himself become increasingly disturbing very quickly, and he decides to bow out of the film. In response, Vukmir gives Milos a glimpse of what he has gotten himself into— a film of an act so repulsive and unimaginable that it makes Milos physically ill— and before he knows it, Milos wakes in his bed four days later with blood all over him and only hazy, fragmented memories of what has happened in the intervening time. He returns to Vukmir’s house and finds a pile of video tapes from which he tries to piece together what he has done and what has been done to him.
At a surface level, A Serbian Film has the look and structure of a slick thriller. In many ways, this is the film Joel Schumacher’s 8mm threatened to be: an in-depth, seriously disturbing look at illegal underground pornography. The content of the film— again, even in its edited form— is far more graphic and unsettling than anything a major Hollywood studio would imagine ever putting on the screen, but that is only the most obvious place where the similarities to familiar horror films and psychological thrillers end. From its title, it seems clear that the filmmakers intend A Serbian Film to be a commentary on the state of things in their country. Vukmir makes a speech that suggests that pornography is the backbone of the Serbian economy, and that the country is a “nation of victims.” Whether this is meant literally or metaphorically is unclear, but A Serbian Film is certainly not short on subtext. It could be anything from a critique and warning about a society immersed in pornography and becoming increasingly desensitized to a commentary on the exploitation of a struggling working class by those with means that are utterly impossible to reach to those born without privilege.
If any modern film was screaming for extensive supplemental features to help explain its filmmakers’ intentions, it’s A Serbian Film, and so it comes as a huge disappointment that the U.S. release is completely bare-bones. Viewers will have to seek out interviews with the filmmakers on their own to get a peek inside what the filmmakers were trying to convey with the film’s graphic, nauseating content. In any case, there is no denying that A Serbian Film is a formidable piece of art, a film that suggests its characters exist in a world where even death is not the end of their exploitation at the hands of the rich and powerful. Like the similarly notorious Deadgirl, I would hesitate to actually recommend A Serbian Film to anyone, but it is unquestionably one of the most harrowing, devastating and powerful films that I have seen in any genre in recent memory.
Invincible Pictures releases A Serbian Film on DVD and Blu-ray 25 October 2011. These releases include a code for a downloadable version of the film for personal media players.
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and “The Crown International Files” for Criticplanet.org as well as contributing to Fine Print Magazine (www.fineprintmag.net).
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