A SERBIAN FILM
Directed by Srdjan Spasojevic
Written by Aleksandar Radivojević and Srđan Spasojević
The so called sub-genre known as “Torture Porn” is a dicey topic for cinema aficionados, film makers and critics both mainstream and whatever-the-hell-stream I'm rafting down alike. To me, it's most often a term of dismissal used by lazy critics and populist pundits vying for a pat on the head from the daytime talk show automaton circuit who love nothing more than to pass moral judgment on the most obvious targets (although that has a tendency to boil down to everyone past their own front step). Since the term was established as a mainstay in the public's limited cinematic vernacular I've been developing a suspicion that these sheltered, self-assured puppets are waiting with baited breath, twisting in their seats at the anticipation of the next hot-topic picture knowing that that the more debased the movie, the taller their soapbox. Populist power perverts if you'd like.
Much like the media conceived “Grunge” movement of the 1990's, none of the self respecting artists who have had this ridiculous title thrust upon their work have really warmed up to it as it only serves to cheapen and generalize. Unfortunately, the damage doesn't stop at the tarnished reputation of the artist, it can also effect those under their influence. Those with a discerning approach will easily separate the caviare from the canned tuna, but unfortunately these days a lot of genre film goers don't know the difference between Romero and W.S. Anderson, and when faced with a talking head cramming an anti-sex-and-violence rap down their throat are far more likely to turn around saying “Yeah, right on, Sex and Violence” than “Actually, you're missing the point entirely”. In a most unfortunate turn of events , it would seem that a crop of new filmmakers are beginning to surface who are helping the industry establish a new narrative low by adopting the most base level traits of certain touchstone pieces and then filling in the gaps with crass stereotypes not actually emanating from their influences themselves, but from the false perceptions and exaggerated projections of their influences as perpetuated by their critics.
So what happens when art stops trying to better itself in the face of its enemies and instead submits to their comically low expectations? More specifically in this case, what happens to the future of horror cinema when it is content behaving more like fodder for a dateline exposé than either art or entertainment in any capacity?
Milos(Srđan Todorović) is a retired porn stud who receives an enticing proposition to be involved in one last shoot that will provide a good life for him, his wife and his young son. Wouldn't you know it, Milos is strapped for cash, and as disinterested as he is in saddling up again it's the only logical solution to his family's financial woes. His wife Mariia (Jelena Gavrilovic) is open to the idea, encouraging even, and the job came to him through a former co-star who despite being seen last in a full-length remake of the third act of BACHLEOR PARTY seems to be on the level, so what could go wrong?
He soon finds himself regaled with projections of pornography's ascension to true art by the Mystery pictures eccentric architect (and “Coffin Joe” look alike) Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović), who has hand picked Milos as a kindred artistic spirit of sorts. Before Milos has time to re-consider his employment options he finds himself in an abandoned orphanage as part of some morbid psycho-drama with a gaggle of strange women who wouldn't be entirely out of place cruising with Frank Booth. He is walked through these strange events via radio as cameramen race around getting coverage of every angle. He starts his time on set playing the role of voyeur to a twisted mother-daughter duo and in short order finds himself in the middle of the action. Then the magic starts.
From there the brutality comes on hard, searing and in truckloads as a veritable smorgasbord of depravity, and I'll admit with no shame that on paper at least “A Serbian Film” is as nasty as I've seen them come in terms of its design. Liberal doses of child abuse, a mid-coital beheading and the classic struggle between penis and too much teeth are all tame scenery on the road towards the films more controversial fair, a full inventory of which may see de Sade snickering and looking away. It becomes quite clear though once this well is tapped that only a cursory understanding of people as emotional creatures exists and that maybe some basic notion of an audiences desire for tension was entertained but not entirely grasped by first time Director Srdjan Spasojevic, as he hits almost all of the right notes, but it's not until he starts broaching another taboo that he starts playing like he means it and any feeling shines through the viscera.
Anchoring artistic, lyrical and narrative violence should either be heart or philosophy, two aspects that this sadistic little squimer hasn't any time to consider as it rends decency limb from limb all throughout its third act. To clarify, I LOVE a movie that rends decency limb from limb, but that level of severity must be delivered with intelligence and an appreciation for it's aftermath, and if not that it had better be damned entertaining somehow. “A Serbian Film” is at no point clever, accountable or good for a chuckle, it just does doughnuts like a monster-truck in a gore bog for an hour and half , so drunk on its superiority-through-excess mind-frame that we're left cleaning excrement and blood out of our eyes wondering “When the fuck is this going to end?”
Believe it or not, a competent cast and technical side are present and put in a valiant effort trying to save “A Serbian Film” from falling in to “Wacky Shit to Freak Your Mom Out With” territory. All of the principles are game to drive every inch of suffering home with convincing and gut-wrenching gusto, succeeding in building a palpable concoction of disgust, paranoia, and perversion, for what its worth. Nearing the third act the pacing becomes more frantic and the film gains a few more points through some really slick editing as it succeeds where a lot of quasi-subliminal, MTV-paced horror films descend in to utter nonsense. Unfortunately, these aspects are just more frosting with no cake to put it on.
I realize as I near the end of this review that I've spent more time dissecting the current trajectory of underground horror than actually putting “A Serbian Film” to task, but frankly that felt like a waste of my time and yours. For all of its intended shock it is a bore, for all of its “mature content” it is so unfathomably infantile on every imaginable level, and ultimately for all the envelopes it pushes it is a trifle compared even to its most low-rent peers. It's a shame really that a picture so determined to stretch out every moral boundary (and every, and I mean every, available orifice) doesn't have a stronger statement to purvey because the genre enthusiast in me always wants to side with the underdog rather than the Oprah-panel-applause-generator, but the only thing worse than a pundit rubbing their moral agenda in our collective nose is a filmmaker doing their best to completely validate everything one of these pundits has to say, and at the end of the day “A Serbian Film” accomplishes that at best. For its efforts in plumbing the depths of thematic indecency this film will likely garner praise from the gorehounds and will in the upcoming years no doubt chart on many a “sickest movies of all time” list, but for anyone who bases their viewing time on more than morbid curiosity this is a picture easily missed.
It is less a movie than a very sad declaration that “Torture Porn” may in fact exist outside of “They Shoot Horses, Don't They?” and “The Passion of The Christ” after all.