Written by: Christopher O’Neill on January 7th, 2011
Theatrical Release Dates: UK, December 10th, 2010
Director: Srdjan Spasojevic
Writer: Aleksandar Radivojevic and Srdjan Spasojevic
Cast: Srdjan Todorovic, Sergej Trifunovic, Jelena Gavrilovic, Katarina Zutic, Slobodan Bestic
DVD released: January 3rd, 2011
Approximate running time: 96 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35.1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating: 18 (UK)
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, Dolby Digital Stereo
Subtitles: English (unremovable [burnt-in])
DVD Release: Revolver Entertainment
Region Coding: Region 2 PAL (UK)
Retail Price: £17.99
Synopsis: Serbia, the present day. Retired porn star Milos has settled down to a life of domesticity with his wife Maria and young son Petar but as financial pressures and feelings of inadequacy escalate, Milos worries how he will support his family. He is introduced to film director Vukmir, a mysterious figure specialising in extreme underground productions who offers Milos a lucrative fee to appear in his next project. There is, however, the stipulation that the participant must remain completely unaware of the content until the moment of filming. After initial reservations Milos accepts but as the shoot progresses he grows increasingly alarmed by the sexually violent acts that he is expected to participate in. Eventually, Milos refuses to have any further involvement and walks away from the production but while attempting to do so he is drugged and brought back to the film set…Several days later Milos awakes in his home bloodied, bruised and alone with no recollection of what has happened. Going back to Vukmir’s headquarters he discovers the promises abandoned but finds blood splattered on the walls and video recordings documenting the last few days. What follows is a man bearing witness to acts perpetrated to him and by him of torture, depravity and murder which ultimately reveals the fate of his family.
Courting controversy in every country it has attempted to screen in uncensored, A Serbian Film is an admirable but troublesome excursion into political allegory and the cinema of extremity within a conventional film formula. In the press notes director Srdjan Spasojevic is quoted as saying “this is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government. It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do”. Taking place in a country that lives in the shadow of The Yugoslav Wars, the film’s metaphorical representation of the Serbian government and its nation during that time is not only apparent in the story but is overtly referenced in some dialogue passages (“Vukmir! Sounds like a name of one of our guys at the Hague tribunal”). This relates the film closely to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or The 120 Days Of Sodom (1975) which adapted the Marquis de Sade’s infamous novel and used it as a parallel to the seduction of the Italian people by fascism (the film takes place towards the end of Mussolini’s reign in 1944). On the other hand, while Pasolini’s film was an unmistakable arthouse drama that documents the amoral corruption of the innocent, A Serbian Film is constructed initially as a dark family drama and shifts gears into a conventional mainstream thriller. With its references to pornography, the urban myth of snuff movies, and the second-half of the film becoming an investigation by the protagonist to discover ‘the truth’, the screenplay recalls Joel Schumacher’s 8mm (1999) although it goes far further than the Hollywood production dared. Taken on its own merits, the use of a genre as formulaic as the thriller creates a sense of ambivalence since it can be deemed as either subversive by presenting the film in a disarmingly accessible manner, or crudely exploitive since it makes the sincerity of the message questionable. It also does not help that parts of the climax go so comically over the top – with the character Vukmir turning into a raving cartoon villain (“That’s it Milos. That’s The Cinema!”) and a death-by-erect-penis-through-the-eye-socket ‘gag’ – that they sit awkwardly next to the all-too-plausible scenes of violence in the remainder of the film. It is important to note that Revolver Entertainment have included an introduction and Q&A session featuring Spasojevic in which the filmmaker is allowed to express himself and defend A Serbian Film, so the viewer can draw their own conclusions as to the director’s true intentions.
The scenes of sexual violence towards women make uncomfortable viewing, but even more distressing is the depiction of sexuality and children to illustrate the film’s metaphor of the nation’s “molestation by the Serbian government”. While the filmmakers have stressed that the child actors were not exposed to objectionable material during filming, these scenes are unsurprisingly the most contentious and have suffered the majority of cuts in the version released both theatrically and on DVD/BluRay in the UK. Missing over 4 minutes of material, this truncated version suffers 49 cuts which results in much action now occurring off-screen (leaving only the expressions of shocked or gleeful onlookers watching these acts within the film). In a direct quote from de Sade’s The 120 Days Of Sodom (but not Pasolini’s film adaptation) there is the film’s most notorious sequence involving a new-born baby (although an obviously fake special effect creation was used for the infant) which, unsurprisingly, has been heavily censored. It is worth noting that the overall effect of A Serbian Film may be blunted from its original version but, even with the cuts, the film still packs a nihilistic punch.
Presented in its correct aspect ratio of 2:35:1, A Serbian Film was shot using the Red Digital Camera which allows High Definition 4K picture quality and looks amazing. The cinematography by Nemanja Jovanov (who was also director of photography on The Life And Death Of A Porno Gang, another recent Serbian film to deal with violence and pornography) is excellent with its clean, precise images adding a further element of subversion since the film appears so slick and smooth while a description of the source material suggests the expectation of a much grainier, grubbier image.
Unfortunately, the English subtitles are unremovable and are burnt onto the image.
The sound is presented in an option of either 5.1 Surround Sound or 2.0 Dolby Stereo, both of which are strong.
Extras include a 4 minute on-camera introduction by director Srdjan Spasojevic in which the filmmaker is able to express his intentions in a way that seems sincerely serious while being peppered with a wry sense of black humour (“Now I will look to my right for a while just to make an impression of an interview made for such purposes so you can take me more seriously”). Also featured on the disc is a 10 minute on-stage Q&A session with Spasojevic and executive producer Nikola Pantelic which is hosted by writer and Frightfest programmer Alan Jones. Filmed after a preview of a cut version in November 2010 at London’s Prince Charles Cinema, several issues about the film are discussed including the censorship of the film in Britain, financing, the hiring of the actors and the reaction to the film in its native country.
Ultimately it is up to the viewer to decide but however daring or objectionable one might find A Serbian Film it is unmistakably an angry film from a nation fraught with a difficult recent history.
Note: A Serbian Film has also been released in Blu-Ray (Region B).