Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Serbian Film (2010, Srdjan Spasojevic)

NOTE: This is a reproduction of my partner Tristan's feelings on A Serbian Film, which became his most controversial review over at 7 Capital Films. He has received a lot of hate mail as a result of its publication. His feelings on the film do not necessarily mirror my own (not to say it isn't powerful as hell; I love the film myself). If you'd like to express your distaste, please direct it at him as it is his review and I'll probably be too busy outside filming my personal followup. U mad?

A Serbian Film tells the terrible story of a retired adult film actor named Milos who gets far more than he bargained for when he accepts what he is led to believe is the role of a lifetime. His intentions are valiant. He needs the money so that he can leave the troubled country of Serbia and start a new life with his attractive and frisky, yet intelligent wife and his young son who looks to have Gypsy heritage and is unbelievably cute. His life isn't as good as it could be. Milos is beginning to struggle with making ends meet, and his brother, who is in law enforcement, hates him because he's attracted to his wife. He accepts the job based on the intriguing premise of what film director Vukmir tells him as well as a former colleague. It's a reality based pornographic art film in which Milos is supposed to instead act off of the reality of the situations he's brought into. He is not supposed to be told about what the script entails. Things begin to get a little too weird when the reality begins to incorporate some sort of strange plot involving children in an orphanage. Disturbed, Milos discusses with his wife what backing out of the film would entail, financially, but eventually even she agrees that it's for the best. He tells Vukmir that he's backing out of the project and has no interest in continuing in filming. Immediately following his declining of the role, however, his life becomes a living nightmare.
In terms of the most disturbing films I've seen, A Serbian Film is certainly one of the nastiest. The only films I feel that top it are Come and See(the Russian World War II film about the young boy who goes insane during the 1943 Nazi Germany takeover)and Threads(the BBC mockumentary about Nuclear war). Films that disturbed me similarly would be Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (the documentary about a child being raised by his father's supposed murderer), Combat Shock (the Troma produced, Buddy Giovinazzo low-budget picture about the deranged Vietnam war veteran), A Clockwork Orange (the 1971 Stanley Kubrick science fiction picture) Possession (the 1981 Andrzej Zulawski horror film with Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill), Dancer in the Dark (the Lars Von Trier/Bjork musical), The War Zone (the incest themed film that Tim Roth directed), Schindler's List (yes, the Steven Spielberg one, it did deeply disturb me), Chan-Wook Park's Oldboy (the revenge picture) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (the Tobe Hooper 70s film that needs no introduction). This is a deeply troubling film in many ways and it ultimately left me feeling a great sadness and frustration. There was not a single positive moment in this film that could really make up for the truly ghastly, cruel acts that are committed against Milos and his family. Part of what makes this film so emotional and devastating is the heavy (and I do mean HEAVY) exposition that makes up the entire first hour of the film. We totally see the family that Milos has and we, as the audience, cannot help but admire how far he has come. This is one of the few films I have seen in recent memory that has a heavy plot, yet has a protagonist who takes his wife's feelings 100% seriously and is, all things considered, an ideal husband overall. He and his family may be on the verge of being poverty stricken, but they have as normal a life as a family like that can possibly have. The wife is a non-judgmental, unassuming, mostly pleasant person who is completely faithful to Milos and doesn't fret at the fact that his profession of choice is what he is most known for in other circles. The son is as gentle-natured as a boy like that can be and, aside from viewing one of his father's films in the opening of the film, is totally normal and healthy and is growing up fast. 
Then there's the brother of Milos, whom we only meet a few times and each time he seems like a mostly sleazy, jealous, and unpleasant man. It's no question that his intentions are impure, and that's probably one of the most overtly obvious things about this picture, though it never takes away too much from the gravity of the situations of this film. He is also a police officer, but he seems most distracted by Milos and his wife in particular. He has an unhealthy fascination with his family, and this fact is established early on. At first I was a little put off by his characters antics being one of the key elements early in in the film, but I eventually concluded that it was better for this film to elude to this fact sooner rather than later.. Vukmir seems most suspicious out of everyone, but doesn't seem too obviously crazy, which I suppose may seem jolting for some viewers. He seems more eccentric, but that's true of a lot of filmmakers. I think the fact that this man is eccentric, yet intelligent and thoughtful may be quite scary for many mainstream viewers, who tend to like their villains insane, loud, and obvious. Vukmir may be insane and loud, but obvious would be the last word I would use to describe his overall character. The film takes it's time showing all these characters as fully rounded people who all have their little personality traits and their own agendas. That's why, when things take a turn for the worse, the audience can't help but be jolted and have a strong reaction. Not only do we see these people as genuine characters, but we also jump to our own conclusions about what could happen to them so that we begin to dread when the film turns ugly. Most people who watch this film will likely know about what happens and how notorious the film is for being dark and disturbing. The thing that most people don't know is how, and that's how emotional and devastating the film truly is
Of course anyone could find films that have horrible and horrendous acts in it, but my question would be how hard do those acts affect the viewer? I ask because I highly doubt that the effects are as devastating as the acts depicted in this. To say the least, this is not a film for the faint-hearted, the easily offended, the pregnant, or for people who have heart conditions. This is one of the only horror films in which you nay need to know about the most notorious scene in the film beforehand before watching because once you know the most notorious scene, you may not want to watch it anymore. Without spoiling anything, one thing I will say is that it is not as graphic and explicit as you probably will picture in your mind when you read about it or hear about it, but what makes the scene (and, really, most of the scenes in this entire film) so horrifying are the sound effects and the editing. The actual onscreen content is mostly a lot of smoke and mirrors, and when some explicit and, some would say, pornographic does occur on screen, it's usually too brief for anyone to really fully take in completely. I think this is a good time to say that the most infamous scene in the picture wasn't even the most disturbing part of the film for me. Take that as you will, as a blessing or as a serious warning that you should never even consider watching A Serbian Film.
Part of what also makes this film effective has to do with how beautifully made it is. With a film of this nature, which is very politically incorrect, over-the-top, and abrasive in it's depraved imagination, it's highly unorthodox that anyone would ever put in so much money and professional talent, and yet that's what has happened here. The film is remarkably well shot and the editing is as fast and as effective as anything you'd find in a horror film. The soundtrack is chilling, effective, and simple. The film has a very deep, gritty, loud techno score that truly enhances the horror and the circumstances of the characters. These elements wouldn't normally add so much to this film, but the fact of the matter is this. A Serbian Film was independently financed. If this much care and attention to detail can be made to this kind of  film with such a low budget, there really shouldn't be any more excuses, in this day and age, for people to cut so many unnecessary cinematic corners. In terms of acting, the performances are absolutely outstanding. Srdjan Todorovic and Sergej Trifunovic(the actors who played Milos and Vukmir) I learn, are two of the most famous and highly acclaimed Serbian actors of the last decade, and their performances are deeply heartfelt. Again, I find this shocking. The fact that two respected actors would act in a film like this really goes to show you the truly professional approach taken with this material. At the same time, it makes me a little sad. If a popular actor in America chose to be in a film with material like this, their career would likely be ruined. Yet these two men are continuing to get roles and are still acting, and now that this film is getting recognition in the states I'm sure they'll get plenty more. Of course this film is probably likely to be banned in Serbia, as well as in a few other places, so I suppose their acclaim may come at some sort of price. Regardless, as far as Serbian film goes, A Serbian Film is as effective as any other.
As a horror film it works wonderfully due to the suspense of the picture. It has a more classical way of plot development and depicting how it all comes together. At times, it feels very modern noir-esque in the same way that the Joseph Gordon Levitt film Brick did. A good chunk of the film is told in hyper real flashback, and so the audience spends a good amount of time wondering what the hell is going on and fearing the worst. Those are the most suspenseful scenes in the film. I like when a film can build so much dread in such a short period of time, and that's one of the things I admired the most about this picture. I like how this film shows events. I like how the film also shows perspective when it comes to what happens. I think one of the more effective parts of this film comes toward the end of the picture when it suddenly dawns on us that this story is not going to have the usual horror film ending. I wouldn't even call this a horror film really if it weren't for the fact that it is scary. It's a horror film in the same way that a film like Brian De Palma's Blow-Out or Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan could be considered horror films even though they certainly aren't. I cannot really complain, however, about whatever elements of genre this film may exhibit, because A Serbian Film breaks more taboos than most films manage to do in the span of two hours, and it does it without sacrificing an ounce of coherency. I'm of the firm belief that all taboos need to be destroyed as soon as possible, and the major one this one breaks is in it's depiction of the adult film industry itself. This film treats the porn film industry incredibly fairly, by depicting it as just another profession just like any other, and by showing the main protagonist, a hardcore porn actor, as being nothing more than just a regular guy who has a normal set of morals and emotions and who happens to just know some very bad people. That's a fact that I feel this film deserves to be recognized for.

This film's way of depicting tragedy is really interesting, because it relies more on genuine personal torment and frustration in order to allow the audience to be emotionally involved in the situation that Milos has undergone and is still working through. It's a tricky technique, but somehow it works. It especially works when the film finally makes it's biggest revelation, which is just terrible and deeply heartbreaking, and then the horror doesn't stop there. To quote one early review that I read before I saw the film, "penises are inserted into things that they were never meant to ever enter into." It's true. What works the most about all this, however, is how unabashed and how bizarre and off-the-wall the nature of reality becomes as the film progresses. The film isn't afraid to be even the slightest bit surreal, and one thing I love about a lot of art is a healthy dose of surrealism. The film isn't also afraid to be darkly humorous. Without spoiling anything, there is a scene in this film in which a man takes his own dick hostage at knife point. Nobody could ever take a film that contains such a ridiculous idea completely seriously, and so viewers should certainly not be afraid to find this film entertaining. The film is entertaining in the same way that the hammer scene at the end of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is entertaining. It's perversely entertaining. Director Srdjan Spasojevic creates such a chaotic world that we get involved in, and we, the audience, are led to believe that anything horrible and depraved could happen at any moment and there will be no limits. It's true too, because there aren't any real limits. I mean yes it is horrible, but at the same time the film manages to in fact tell a story and it manages to be scary and effective as a horror film. That's what amazes most about this picture. A Serbian Film is as gory, and disturbing, and as intense as it gets, but none of it ever feels the least bit gratuitous, even if the imagery can be quite jarring and unsettling at times.

Part of me also wants to pay more attention to the political aspects of the film, which come across as more metaphorical at times although they are undeniably still there, despite whatever the naysayers say. This film is more a picture dealing with a collective rage that is garnered from the citizens of the country of Serbia that comes from many years of war atrocities, political corruption, dishonesty, and censorship that befallen Serbia in the last two decades. The acts that are depicted in this film, obviously, are nothing compared to the terrible things going on there in war-torn areas, and I highly doubt any comparison was intended. The idea of soldiers being forced to basically become animals in order to serve their government is a lot more disturbing in itself than what's going on in this film. This film's intention is not to show all that and try to compete with ghastly imagery on it's own, but instead to emulate the same feelings of living in a war torn environment in which the local business and people, so devastated by the atrocities, have crumbled. As the director described, he's taken a profession, in this film being the adult film actor, and has found a way to have it so that the character, so to speak, is raped in multiple ways. In this regard, I think the film works wonders, though I would recommend forgetting all of that if you're going to take the film on an emotional level. Essentially it's kind of like what Eli Roth tried to do with Hostel, though with mixed results. There's nothing wrong with making a horror film, and in a lot of ways Hostel is a much more violent film than A Serbian Film. This is not the kind of horror film that is all blood and guts and sex. This is more the kind of horror film that is like Pasolini's Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Von Trier's Antichrist, or Lyne's Jacob's Ladder. Essentially it's a horror film that does a lot more than just horrifies. It's a tragedy that you can't help but have a strong reaction to. It's really no different than Chan-Wook Park's Oldboy, which to me is an equally powerful and disturbing film. My reaction to this film is one of tremendous sadness and anger. Anger at the filmmakers for showing me these things that I don't want to see, and sadness for myself for watching this. Wes Craven did the exact same thing with Last House on the Left. His film was his reaction to the Vietnam war. Films like this are simply reactions to the violence and depravity of the world around us and nothing more. It's difficult to put into words how one would feel, for example, if someone opened up a newspaper and read about a girl getting kidnapped, raped, murdered, and dissolved in acid. It's impossible to find the right words to describe how sad one would feel, and there is nothing wrong with making a film that is meant to emulate those feelings for the average viewer. A Serbian Film is primarily, however, an attack on censorship and political correctness. In a time in which many films are banned in different countries for jokes against the handicapped, for racial humor, and for satiric attacks against political figures, one of this film's major intentions is to destroy taboos, which to me is an important thing. Today, Mel Brooks would never be allowed to make Blazing Saddles without controversy blowing up in his face. I think that taboos are holding the human race back, and in a way it is very refreshing to see a film that is so gleeful in it's destruction of forbidden imagery and ideas.
The big question for me would be, should I recommend it? On one hand, this film angered me and made me feel terrible for poor Milos and his wife and child and the horrible things that they all go through. On the other hand, this film, in terms of transgressive cinema with pictures such as Ex Drummer, Irreversible, Inside, and Martyrs, A Serbian Film is one of the best of it's kind. It's one of the most effective films I've seen in years as well as one of the scariest. It's disheartening, frustrating, and cruel. One thing I can definitely say though is that it's not gratuitous. Brutal? Definitely. Exploitative and over-the-top? Maybe a little, if you want to get really into it. Horrifying? Yes. It's beautifully made, it's heartbreakingly tragic, it's terribly realistic, it's not entirely humorless (some of the violence seems straight out of a Troma picture), and it's one of the most effective and well made films as well as one of the most disturbing. The big question is, does it work? Yes, it works. It works a little too well one could say, but it works. So do I fault it for working? No, I praise it. I wouldn't recommend to everyone, but I'm glad that films like this can still be made and I'm glad that filmmakers have the guts to go all the way with their vision. Srdjan Spasojevic was clearly inspired by the works of filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg, and William Friedkin. This is Srdjan Spasojevic's first film, and I think a lot of Hollywood horror filmmakers could learn a thing or two from his style and his fearless approach to this rather difficult material. It's one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen, and I don't regret watching it for even a second. If a film can get to me this strongly, it has certainly done something right.
10/10

16 comments:

  1. Just to correct you , the scenes of violence in the movie has nothing to do as a metaphor for war . Even the director has said so . I know that the standard excuse is that it is up to the viewer how to interpret the movie but the director has a specific intent here and your statements fail to account for many things in the movie . That's all I have to say .

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  2. I saw the film before reading into the director's thoughts on his own film, and what I took away from it is that violence is a part of the life of the average man, even those who have family, and in a location known for being involved in modern warfare it's safe to conclude that their culture is opposed to it while the people in charge are countering the citizens. I know that the director has stated otherwise, but I think his personal feelings have more to do with the series of events more that the overall attitude in which the material is presented. It's clear, at least to me, that it's an angry film. However, the one thing I definitely think makes it stray from his intentions is the fact that it has an emotional core and a dark sense of humor (at least to me). I guess in this regard I disagree with the director, but to be fair he probably understands his resulting work a lot more since he knows where he's coming from with his own personal experiences in Serbia. Also, the humorous material might be his way of offsetting the material. Either way what he has said does make me want to re-examine the film, though probably not for a long time since it traumatized me so much the first time around. Until then, I will stand (and continue to stand) incorrect in my opinions.

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  3. I strongly disagree with both of you. The film is an obvious attack on capitalism, thats all there is to it. Its not even up to interpritation, seriously.

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  4. No offense, but you have to be crazy to give this sick piece of shit a 10. I refuse to see this. I don't fucking care if it is well made, any film that contains sexual acts toward children should be considered child porn outright. In my eyes anybody who likes this film is just as sick as the directors of this and that includes you.

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  5. So the film isn't to your liking then? That's a shame. It has a lot more to it than a visceral punch.

    Oh, do avoid my review of 'Megan is Missing.' That one might anger you in a similar fashion.

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  6. Don't listen to the haters. This movie was awesome. Best horror film of last year IMO.

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  7. Thank you Tonya! It's nice to meet someone else who sees this film for what it truly is. I'm glad to hear that you liked it so much - it's among my top horror films of last year as well!

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  8. This movie was awesome! I agree it is very intense and emotional, and thats why it's good. I do think the content's been hyped up a lot though. It's not that bad. What are some more disturbing movies you've seen? have you seen Philosophy of a Knife, Faces of Death films, Mondo Canes, or August Under Grounds? Those all freak me out.

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    1. Thank you Mikey, I agree. Very good film. As for the things you've listed, I have not seen PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE, though my partner has and he said it's pretty intense. I also have only seen the first FACES OF DEATH film. I thought it was pretty strange, but I can certainly see the appeal of such films. It was quite an experience. I've seen both of the MONDO CANE films, WOMEN OF THE WORLD, AFRICA ADDIO, and GOODBYE UNCLE TOM. I liked all of them and I found them all to be very intense and disturbing to watch. I have also seen the AUGUST UNDERGROUND pictures. Couldn't really get into them all that much, mainly because the characters just weren't all that original, but I thought the effects and the make-up were really good. As for other disturbing films I've seen, here are the following films for you to check out, all of which deeply disturbed me.

      COME AND SEE
      THREADS
      SCHINDLER'S LIST
      DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER
      COMBAT SHOCK
      CUTTING MOMENTS
      MEET THE FEEBLES
      BEGOTTEN
      THE WAR ZONE
      BAD BOY BUBBY
      BLUE VELVET
      POSSESSION
      IN A GLASS CAGE
      OLDBOY
      INSIDE
      THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE
      PASSION OF THE CHRIST
      HAPPINESS
      CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST
      THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE & HER LOVER
      THE BABY OF MACON
      ERASERHEAD
      PINK FLAMINGOS
      SWEET MOVIE
      LAST HOUSE ON DEAD-END STREET
      I STAND ALONE
      MONSTER
      VISITOR Q
      SICK: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF BOB FLANAGAN; SUPERMASOCHIST
      EX DRUMMER
      TAXIDERMIA
      GIMME SHELTER
      A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
      EL TOPO
      SANTA SANGRE
      POISON
      ALL NIGHT LONG 2: ATROCITY
      SALO' THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM
      DOGTOOTH
      THE UNTOLD STORY
      IRREVERSIBLE
      I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE
      TITICUT FOLLIES
      SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
      ICHI THE KILLER
      CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS
      BAD LIEUTENANT
      RE-ANIMATOR
      FROM BEYOND
      CALIGULA
      THE IDIOTS
      DANCER IN THE DARK
      BREAKING THE WAVES
      DOGVILLE
      ANTICHRIST
      DEAD RINGERS
      MYSTERIOUS SKIN
      REQUIEM FOR A DREAM
      HARDCORE
      MAN BITES DOG
      SAVE THE GREEN PLANET

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    2. I completely agree with you 100%. I really liked this film a lot. One day, many years from now, this film is going to be a lot more appreciated. People will realize that the film is not as gratuitous as they think it is, and it will be appreciated more for it's ingenious allegorical themes and politically incorrect humor. If this film ever gets remade, Mel Brooks should do it. No joke. This film has his brand of dark humor.

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    3. I'm from Serbia but I didn't watch it I will watch it tonight and tell you If I like it

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  9. I didn't like it, not just because it was gross, but I found it pretentious. It was all "Look at me! I'm making a statement about my country!". Assuming Serbia really is as fucked up, explain me: [spoiler]How is putting your dick inside someone's eye social commentary?[/spoiler]. However, this was a very well written review. It doesn't matter if the grade is higher than the one everybody else gave it. You stated your opinion with a deep analysis and that's what matters.

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    1. Thank you Vits, I totally agree that it's disgusting. I'm not sure if I would use the word pretentious to describe it, however. Maybe ponderous? I'm not exactly sure how this film a political statement like everyone else is claiming it is and I think I'm going to need clarity on this aspect of the picture. I can see how there could be political aspects to it if it's an attack on censorship, but the same can be said for LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and the Vietnam war. Whatever the social commentary was that apparently exists in this film that everyone is talking about, it went completely over my head and I think, because of this, I'm thinking I'm going to have to watch this again.

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  10. IHATEYAHOOSERIOUSMay 2, 2012 at 2:28 PM

    "I wouldn't even call this a horror film really if it weren't for the fact that it is scary. It's a horror film in the same way that a film like Brian De Palma's Blow-Out or Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan could be considered horror films even though they certainly aren't. I cannot really complain, however, about whatever elements of genre this film may exhibit, because A Serbian Film breaks more taboos than most films manage to do in the span of two hours, and it does it without sacrificing an ounce of coherency. I'm of the firm belief that all taboos need to be destroyed as soon as possible, and the major one this one breaks is in it's depiction of the adult film industry itself. This film treats the porn film industry incredibly fairly, by depicting it as just another profession just like any other, and by showing the main protagonist, a hardcore porn actor, as being nothing more than just a regular guy who has a normal set of morals and emotions and who happens to just know some very bad people. That's a fact that I feel this film deserves to be recognized for."

    This part of the review really resonated with me. I'm not sure why, but I was very moved by this picture. Like, it actually made me cry. I hated watching it too, but when I thought about it I felt it was a worthwhile film. I think what you said in the above quote was why.

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  11. You people are evil for liking this film. I'm sorry, but that's just a fact. You people are publicizing a film that shows a baby getting raped!! Do you know how fucking evil that is? I'm sorry, but some things should just stay taboo forever and never get shown or talked about in film. I dont know who is more evil, you people or the people who made this piece of smutty child porn.

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  12. the movie did not show the baby being raped, all of it was off screen, you only heard the cries of the baby and was very effective, again, your mind plays tricks on you and makes think you are seeing more than you actually are, the film overall is very good, if you label it as a horror movie which i think it should be labeled as it works, horror movies are supposed to be shocking, supposed to give you that feeling in your gut and this one defenitely does, its a kick to the balls, its a hard watch but it is done very well, bravo to the actors and the film maker, the cinematopgraphy is nice and the soundtrack just adds to the since of dread in the film

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