DISCLAIMER: I have chosen to give this film 1 Skull. This represents the most difficult decision I have ever made regarding the rating of a film. The reason for this decision is hopefully laid out before you in this review. It is not a reflection on the physical quality of the work contained here or the execution and success of the film based on the Director’s intentions. Serbian Film is a polarizing production, one that is in many ways a work of either pure genius or absolute insanity. However as I find the film to personally have no redeeming social or political or artistic value, it is my option that a 5 skull rating just for sheer audacity is both misleading and unfair to you as a viewing audience. Take that as either a recommendation or a damnation, as you will.
Salo, Gummo, Inside, all of these films have one thing in common. I was unprepared for what I saw when I sat down to watch them. I mean, sure, I had an inkling that they were supposed to be “shocking” but no real comprehension of the horrors that would fill my screen with each passing frame. Each film had some buzz for me, I knew of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini from reading a Kathy Acker book in high school that featured the Director as a character. I knew Gummo was from the writer of Kids and I knew Inside was the second film I was to about watch in the “French New Wave of Horror Cinema”. But the buzz on each film was a low hum and certainly not apocalyptic in scope. No one told me that these films would ruin me or make me physically ill but all three did that at varying intervals in my life. Salo in the early 90’s, Gummo a few years later and Inside just a few short years ago. Still, in the annals of my cinematic experience, none of these films can hold a candle to what I witnessed at the Alamo Drafthouse during the SXSW Film Festival.
Serbian Film arrived with every conceivable warning–unlike that trilogy above. I was told time and again by a trusted source (with a stomach of iron) that this film contained scenes that would…nothing short of rape my soul. Hyperbole that I couldn’t even argue as I sat in stunned silence with 250 other people as the credits closed. It wasn’t that I was unprepared for what I had just seen. I was fully prepared. I was over prepared. I was ready to have my soul raped. I had no faith in humanity to question. I’ve seen everything. I’ve seen internet porno that would make you run to a monastery. I’ve laughed at the August Underground and Guinea Pig films. I’ve sat behind the lens on film sets and watched every manner of chunk blowing effects shot executed 50 feet from my face. I’ve seen people die in documentaries jumping off the Golden State Bridge, I’ve seen PeTA videos, I sat with you all on September 11th and cried as the towers came tumbling down. Nothing was going to faze me. I was wrong.
I can’t bring myself to utter the two-word phrase joyously shouted with mad delight by the crazed film producer at the center of this story. I can’t unsee what I saw. I can’t close my eyes and not go on the journey of Milos (Srdjan Todorovic)–a former porn star with a beautiful wife and young son who is lured back into the world of adult films by a former co-star and a visionary director who promises a great deal of money to make the ultimate art house porno film. Not knowing what the film is about, Milos agrees–against his seeming better judgment–to pursue the project for the hope that the funds will free him and his family from their drab existence in Serbia. But what kind of movie is Vukmir making, why and for whom? These are the questions Milos asks and these are the answers that you don’t want to know.
Serbian Film is not a “War Movie” however it is a battle and it’s stained with the blood of tens of thousands. The film from director Srdjan Spasojevic is ostensibly a reactionary piece. Built out of a film industry that is just suffering the pangs of birth and freedom only a decade or so after the war ravaged country reemerged from the former Yugoslavia and only 4 years after gaining its independence from Montenegro.
Born of nearly 20 years of conflict, genocide and a systematic military campaign of rape as a tactical weapon. Serbian Film follows French cinema pioneers Gaspar Noe (Irreversible) and Virginie Despentes (Baise-moi) in destroying the status quo regarding on screen violence and sexuality. It is as much a revelation as to the power of image as it is a repulsion to all be the most depraved viewer. Is it designed to make you sick. Is it designed to make you wish you were never born with the blessing of sight and the beauty of a moral compass. Is it a powerful film conceived in a place that saw the absolute worst of what humanity is capable. If you can’t imagine what is like to sit though this movie, how can you ever imagine or empathize, understand or respect what the Serbian, Albanian, Croatian and other former residents of Yugoslavia endured for almost 15-years. But does that make it a good movie?
In many ways Serbian Film is like going to war. Its purpose is to shock you and it does so with impunity. I can’t imagine the horrors that the people of Serbia endured not so long ago. I can’t relate to the character of Milos. I can’t in even my most evil and vile dreams conceive of what he experiences over the course of the movie. I don’t identify with that, and for that I am eternally grateful. However, if going on this journey is enough to make anyone understand the metaphor than perhaps the film is a success and in that success the world would never go to war again.
To describe the horrors in this film to a niche movie-going public that will either embrace the film’s extremity (or run screaming to the nearest cliff and hurl their bodies off it in protest) is futile. If what I have written here is enough to turn your feelings of wonder into a burning desire to watch this monstrosity, then perhaps I haven’t been clear enough. You don’t want to see Serbian Film. You just think you do. You’ve been far too desensitized. You’ve laughed at people that fainted in theaters, snickered at legends of grown men and women who walked out of movie premieres and puked on lobby floors. You think you’ve seen it all and after this, you’ll wish you had.
In the end, maybe Serbian Film is just another exploitation film. Just the twisted ravings of a lunatic mind, just another P.T. Barnum, button-pushing product that can famously tote that cinema labs in Hungary and Germany refused to even print the film due to content issues. Perhaps it is an allegory for what the Bosnian War mean to generations of people. Perhaps it’s a cold hard look into a desensitized world where video games morals have turned 10-year-olds into rapists and murders? Perhaps, in some ways it’s all those things. But, the one thing it is not, is entertainment.