It was with an oppressive yet thrilling sense of dread that I anticipated watching A Serbian Film. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a film where I have gone into the experience with so many other people’s thoughts, feelings and opinions already in my consciousness, even from those who hadn’t actually seen the film. It’s fair to say that that my feelings of anxiety at what I was about to see were greater than anything actually experienced in the film. That said, it was certainly up there with the nastiest films I’ve watched in a fair while.
A Serbian Film is a very good movie, and given that it is a debut from an independent film maker high praise is due. It won’t happen because of the subject matter, but there can be few movies from relatively inexperienced directors that are this accomplished. I understood the main character (Milos) and strongly sensed his commitment to his family and his desire to be a provider. He knew that he was getting in over his head from the start, but greater was his need to offer his family security; and this is the main plot thrust for the film: Milos has entered into a contract to make an adult film for a life changing sum of money, and life changing it certainly turns out to be.
The set pieces were brilliantly shot, and very unsettling. A lot of this was down to the quality of acting and direction that made me care about Milos and his situation. Srdjan Spasojevic, the director of the film, also scored highly by making me think I was seeing things that I didn’t during the more “boundary pushing” scenes. Often it was the concept of what was occurring on screen that repulsed, rather than any specific image. The now infamous “newborn” scene was a case in point. We didn’t see anything beyond a suggested action, which was vile, but we weren’t privy to the physical details of it.
A lot has been said about the motivation behind making this movie, and its metaphor to the atrocities that occurred in Serbia. It is enough to be told that there is an allegory in the film, it doesn’t have to be obvious. Someone has created art, and stated its motivation. It’s misguided to feel that we need to “get it” further, else all films with that intent will become tediously literal and pedestrian. There were several key pieces of dialogue that did present the metaphor and that was adequate without being intrusive. Further to that, the loss of innocence was a theme that was pervasive throughout; from conversations with Milos’ young son about arousal to the more brutal scenes of deprivation and abuse. Speaking of which…
There is a scene involving a machete and a chained woman which can’t be topped for sheer in-your-face horror, it was the ultimate gore scene. You could see what was going to happen and it did, viscerally and unflinchingly. As with most things in this film, there is always a little cherry on top – and here a comment is made about enjoying rigamortis and Milos needs to be “disengaged” from the victim by two men (I’ll leave that to your imagination!). It completed the scene, added an extra element of disgust and was also darkly humorous. I’ll avoid any further spoilers, although with all that has been discussed within the horror community I suspect it is too late for that. Suffice to say that the director builds to the horror slowly, but once it arrives there is image after image of unrelenting sadism, gore and violence – every single one with a horrific sexual overtone. We descend with Milos into the absolute depths of depravity and we are not allowed respite until we have completed the experience.
Accompanying these scenes was an extremely effective use of music and sound. Some might find the soundtrack intrusive, but given the intensity of the visual images it added a great deal and needed to be prominent to avoid being lost behind the degeneracy occurring onscreen. Some of the low frequency signal generator noises really heightened the sense of intimidation and fear, they resonated and churned in the gut. It was reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s Irréversible in this regard, although this is where the comparisons end, as A Serbian Film makes Irréversible look like something from Disney in every other way.
Even though I really liked the film, for want of a better verb, it was the victim of the hype and hysteria surrounding it. Maybe I’ve been desensitized, but I was expecting this to mess me up, and it really didn’t – ultimately it was just another film. I’ve mulled over some of the scenes since watching it, but not much more so than any other well made movie, and the films images haven’t been mentally replayed as part of some kind of brain scarring. I had heard I might want to “unsee” it, but I found it not to be the case as the film was ultimately a worthwhile experience.
Some horror journalists have reviewed this film and advised their readership not to see it, that it would be too much for them, and that they only think they want to watch it. If you are reading this blog, you won’t be patronized in this way. You are a horror fan and you understand that this film has a visual power that will shock you. Be prepared for some unsettling images, but I recommend this film to you if extreme cinema is your thing. Of course, if you found Twilight heavy going (or even watched it) you might want to stay away from this one.
In conclusion, it was stylish but with substance; viscerally violent and depraved but with justification. The horror, and the nature of the horror, is some of the most extreme you’ll ever see but this is built up to with a delicate touch. It is a really good film from a director I’ll be interested in following. It will deeply upset many, but for most of the modern genre audience, and that’s you, as nasty as it is it will not deliver on its notoriety, which is a shame because there is more to the film than simply trying to endure its horror. More importantly though, A Serbian Film represents the rarest of treats to the horror fan: a film that we are actually nervous about watching – and for some scenes at least, you are wise to be worried.
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