Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #526
Number of Views: One
Release Date: June 11, 2010
Sub-Genre: Extreme Exploitation
Country of Origin: Serbia
Box Office: €6,975 (Serbia)
Running Time: 104 minutes
Director: Srban Spasojević
Producers: Srđan Spasojević, Dragoljub Vojnov
Screenplay: Aleksandar Radivojević, Srđan Spasojević
Special Effects: Miroslav Lakobrija
Cinematography: Nemanja Jovanov
Score: Sky Wikluh
Editing: Darko Simić
Studio: Contra Film
Distributor: Jinga Films
Stars: Sergej Trifunović, Srđan Todorović, Jelena Gavrilović, Slobodan Bestic, Katarina Zutic, Luka Mijatovic, Ana Sakic, Lena Bogdanovic, Miodrag Krcmarik, Nenad Herakovic, Carni Deric, Andela Nenadovic, Tanja Divnic, Lidija Pletl, Marina Savic, Natasa Miljus
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♬
 Sky Wikluh “Decollection”
 Sky Wikluh “Tone Deaf Death”
 Sky Wikluh “Balcan Sex God”
I have been watching horror movies for most of my adult life and rarely am I left shocked. Certain works have burrowed beneath my skin, certain images become lodged in my hippocampus, certain experiences left me feeling dirty. But precious little has actually managed to prise open my maw and steal the breath from my lungs. There is an ongoing debate as to whether or not certain films should have been made in the first place and right at the top of this agenda is a certain piece of exploitation from first time Serbian director Srban Spasojević. Banned in many countries and subjected to 19 minutes of cuts in the United States before achieving an NC-17 rating, A Serbian Film is easily the most controversial piece of modern storytelling ever committed to celluloid and, to many, deemed utterly indefensible.
It has taken me five years to pluck up the resolve to find out what all the fuss is about and isn’t a task I have undertaken lightly. Already aware that it tackles topics that don’t exactly make for a joyful viewing experience, I have done so with great trepidation, and mindful of the fact that, once experienced, my primary emotion was likely to be shame. Nevertheless, I am of the opinion that film is there to do more than simply tickle those pleasure nodes and also has the ability to challenge its audience. Many of my life lessons have been learned this way and, having watched leagues of exploitation flicks over the course of my filmic tenure, I’ve rubbed shoulders with all manner of reprobates during that time. There have been occasions when I have felt physically sick and would consider that as part of the process. You see, certain films are for adults and adults only and A Serbian Film has never professed to fitting any other bill than that.
Before we go any further, I shall slip on my kit gloves, as the following appraisal needs to be handled with a great deal of sensitivity. My analysis will doubtless divide opinion and I am fully prepared for a backlash from certain quarters for what I am about to say. However, I shall extend Spasojević’s film the same courtesy I do every time I enter into this process, that being, a fair crack of the whip. Emotions invariably run high with works such as this, particularly when they touch on taboos such as pedophilia and necrophilia. Make no mistake, A Serbian Film does far more than simply glancing over these topics and, instead, restrains us alongside its main protagonist and clamps our eyes open while it assaults every last one of our senses.
Before we can so much as settle nervously in our seats we are introduced to semi-retired porn star Miloš (Srđan Todorović) in no uncertain terms. Miloš has made quite the name for himself as the industry’s most valuable commodity on account of being able to get hard at the drop of a hat and perform for hours without once going flaccid. Straight off the bat, we are exposed to his on-screen sexual prowess courtesy of one of his movies, and as the camera pans out to reveal his six-year-old son, Petar (Luka Mijatović) watching on in wide-eyed fascination, it becomes painfully clear that thick skin will be a requisite for the next 104 minutes. It is worth noting that the viewing has not been facilitated by Miloš and stems from the boy’s curiosity and a fairly slipshod attempt from daddy of keeping his showreel out of his son’s reach.
Miloš is both a proud father and loving husband. His wife Marija (Jelena Gavrilović) accepts his past endeavors and doesn’t question his career choices up to now. By all accounts, they are very much your average middle class Serbian family and Spasojević goes to great lengths to show them in their natural habitat. Moreover, when Petar starts asking questions about the funny feeling in his tummy that results from watching his father in action, both parents respond honestly but with the kind of refinement required to put his racing mind at ease. These early interactions are critical to our investment and the director is careful to portray our main protagonist in an appropriate light.
Another great example of this is the moment when his wife requests to be fucked like one of his on-screen conquests. An initially reluctant Miloš abides and, momentarily, we question his ferocious sexual rejoinder, but somehow it manages to conclude with a remarkably tender exchange. At this point, it would be fair to say that a cat has been thrown amongst the pigeons as a film which was almost unanimously regarded as despicable upon its release quite clearly does possess a heart. Should a different approach have been taken then I would have struggled to rationalize sticking with A Serbian Film as it moves swiftly towards darker pastures but, barely ten minutes in, it already had me utterly captive.
Happy families it may be but we are already fully aware that is about to change and, when Miloš meets up with former co-star Lejla (Katarina Žutić), the walls begin to close in around us. Money is becoming increasingly scarce so her offer of a bloated pay check understandably has him intrigued, if a little perturbed. Desperate to provide a better life for his family, he agrees to meet well-connected independent pornographer Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović) at his palatial home and learn more about what will be required of him to secure this nest egg. After receiving a decidedly vague brief, Miloš is presented with a contract to sign. The only apparent catch is that he will remain in the dark about what he will be filming as Vukmir believes that would compromise his performance. Reluctantly, and after considerable soul-searching, he signs the dotted line as this can supply his family’s ticket out of Serbia.
Filming is set to begin almost instantly and, worryingly, the location is a local orphanage. Miloš turns up for his first day on set with no lines to recite and, instead, a fitted earpiece through which his director relays any instructions. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that this is no ordinary porn shoot and, after being fellated by a nurse in a dimly lit room, while an underage girl seductively slathers an ice pop for his personal viewing pleasure, warning signs begin to sound. He is still none the wiser as to where this will ultimately lead and leaves the building under a cloud of confusion and with grave concerns about what he has agreed to. Miloš may be more willing than most to go above and beyond for the sake of his art but he also has defined limits to how far he will go to make a movie, no matter how alluring the financial sweetener.
Spasojević makes no bones about our involvement in events. As his lead learns more about his dubious mission statement, so too do we, and it is perhaps here that A Serbian Film crosses the line with a large percentage of its audience. We are almost required to be Miloš and this level of participation is something that many will find too distressing to endure. Having said that, it makes his plight all the more personal and, what transpires next, all the more devastating. He wants out and makes it abundantly clear that he will play no further part in the escapade but Vukmir has other ideas. In an attempt at filling in the blanks, his director reveals where this is leading, and the resulting enlightenment is one that will likely prompt one of two reactions. Either we run for the hills and never look back or accept our fate and prepare to be horrified on a deep, psychological level that is guaranteed to scar us forever.
I struggle to find the words to elucidate my distress at what A Serbian Film exposes us to. Whilst ordinarily I feel obliged to safeguard a film’s anonymity for the purpose of not lessening the experience for another, I simply cannot allow anyone unfamiliar with the deplorable horrors of the second act to enter into such a tryst without prior heads up. Therefore, I will give it to you straight and move swiftly on. Newborn porn. I feel sick to the pit of my stomach just typing those two words and sicker still recalling the mortifying instance in question. As aforementioned, this transpires at around the midway mark, and the second half of the film has no intention whatsoever of softening the tone. In all of my years as a student of film, I have never been so utterly nauseated and I have had the distinct displeasure of experiencing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom.
It is here that I find myself at something of a loss. You see, A Serbian Film is more than deserving of its infamy and every bit as deplorable as has been suggested. Guilty as charged right? Astonishingly no. This is more than simply an attempt to shock and appall although it achieves both without reservation. Spasojević and fellow screenwriter Aleksandar Radivojević are making an unflinching statement about their homeland and the fascist regime that governs it. I have never been to Serbia and certainly have no plans to break that duck now so cannot shed any additional light about its political relevance. But there are a number of other reasons why this resonates so strongly and I am far better positioned to discuss these factors.
Todorović is utterly commanding as Miloš and delivers a performance every bit as committed as Robert De Niro’s turn as Travis Bickle. Whilst portraying a monster, he is very much the victim throughout and manages to strike this fine balance effortlessly. He is also aided by superb writing and the dialogue is truly first-rate. For as much as his actions are unforgivable, they are also out of his control and we never lose sight of the humanity of his character. Had this not be the case, then any captive audience would have surely been lost but somehow, inexplicably, we can still identify and this is no small feat given the atrocities that play out. Meanwhile, in Trifunović’s Vukmir, we are presented with perhaps the most downright repellent villain ever depicted on-screen and the entire cast are excellent without a solitary exception.
From a cinematic standpoint it is no less accomplished. Spasojević has a very keen visual style which director of photography Nemanja Jovanov works with commendably, shrouding us in murky shadows one minute then blinding us with vivid light to ensure that we feel like rabbits in headlamps. Speaking of which, as Miloš ventures deeper into the rabbit hole, there’s an almost fairy tale feel to proceedings although Alice in Wonderland this most certainly isn’t and Lewis Carroll is likely turning in his grave at the comparison. As for the audio accompaniment, Sky Wikluh’s mesmerizing score is one of the finest I have heard in a number of years and ensures that every last one of our senses is ravaged. Twenty four hours has now passed since I watched A Serbian Film and those pounding soundbites are still throbbing on incessant loop in my head like a bad migraine.
The closing act is beyond merciless and, be warned, a certain 11th hour reveal will prove way too much for all but the most jaded viewer. While we are still reeling, Spasojević promptly wraps things up with the only conclusion conceivable by this point. Almost unfeasibly, we are provided with a true moment of poignancy to deliver us back from the brink. However, even then, he cannot resist one final kidney punch and the closing line of dialogue will reverberate long after you’ve rushed to the toilet to puke up your guts. By the time it is done with you, nothing will ever be quite the same, and this testifies to the power of cinema, even when at its most destitute and pungent.
If you are still reading, but harboring severe doubts, then allow me to make this a little easier for you. There exist a number of different edits and most of them have had various key scenes trimmed back or excised outright. I endured the 104 minute uncensored print so that you wouldn’t be required to. Having done so, I shall make a rather unprecedented suggestion. There is no need to suffer as I did. Remember that, when it comes to horror, I am a qualified professional and would never suggest that you try this at home if you don’t feel confident of safe delivery the other end. My case in point is Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. In the UK it is available almost entirely uncut and the only scenes omitted are of harsh cruelty to an endangered species. I’ll happily skip the turtle bashing for subsequent views as I don’t feel it compromises the overall experience. By the same token, A Serbian Film can still make its point under the supervision of the censorship board. That choice is ultimately yours to make and I would implore you to do so very carefully.
You know what shocks me the most about this film? I fully expected this to be a one-time deal and not an excursion I would ever contemplate reliving. Having survived it, I can state with assurance that repeat views are not out of the question and, indeed, already forecast. Despicable it may be but it’s not downright inexcusable and it is a humongous compliment to Spasojević’s craft that I can even contemplate putting myself through the ringer a second time. Say what you will about A Serbian Film but, strip away the filth and grime and you will find a heart beating beneath. I never thought I would be saying that but therein lies the power of provocative cinema. It isn’t always meant to be comfortable but it is meant to draw you in and few films can boast to do so as conclusively. Just never say I didn’t warn you.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Grue Factor: 5/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Somewhat uncharacteristically for me, I would prefer not to go into detail on this occasion. However, I will say this. Should you be of a weak disposition then enter on an empty stomach or you may well regret it. As far as skin is concerned, there is nothing even faintly erotic about A Serbian Film so best find your kicks elsewhere. For the real lion-hearted amongst us, I will allow these parting visuals to speak on my behalf and go and run myself that bath.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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