I Watched It So You Don't Have To: A Serbian Film
Author's note (8/21/2018): I recently came across a discussion online where someone claimed that people were reading this movie incorrectly, and that it's actually a gross-out black comedy. I plan to rewatch it soon with that perspective in mind, as I think that might be accurate. For now, I stand by my analysis but look for a possible revision in the next few months. Halloween season most likely.
I am one of those people who believes that movies are art. Perhaps not all of them, but I’m also not totally convinced that all art is 'art' anyhow, so whatever. In its simplest definition, the point of art is to express something and the vast majority of movies have a lot to say. They carry substantial points on our humanity or our society, never mind those that are just simply stunning to look at. If a movie is considered art, it can be called so due to its beauty or its message, sometimes both. If its message wants you to curl up in a ball and weep gently then it’s hard to say that that’s not a type of art. Such is the case with A Serbian Film (2010).
Some of you may know the name. Some of you may have seen the actual movie. Others may have just heard how repulsive this one is and have no desire to see it. To start off, yes, this is a viscerally disgusting film. Yet some of the scenes read as a bit campy despite being horrific. Some of the more graphic scenes have a slight Evil Dead-look to them, that I'd argue was done intentionally.
Interviews with the writer/director Srđan Spasojević expose the satirical nature of the film. He speaks openly about making the film to parody the modern Serbian films being released, films he claims pander to politically correctness while being financed with foreign funds. Digging a bit deeper, we begin to understand what he’s referring to in regards to political correctness as he says, “In Eastern Europe, you cannot get your film financed unless you have a barefoot girl who cries on the streets, or some story about war victims in our region... the Western world has lost feelings, so they're searching for false ones, they want to buy feelings.”
This speaks to a trend in the US as well, where we tend to dictate how people can tell stories. Movies that portray abuse or violence in a realistic but less than pearl-clutching way are often accused of being insensitive or playing the situations for laughs. We demand uncomplicated narratives about complicated topics so that we as the viewer feel comfortable. It doesn’t matter that we’re still being entertained by someone else’s pain as long as it is laid out in the format we’re familiar with.
Now, with that being said, does A Serbian Film accomplish what it sets out to? Well, kinda. The gist of the story is an aging porn star Milos (Srđan Todorović) is offered a lucrative, one-day job by a director Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović). The job devolves into all kinds of horrifying activities that Milos recoils from, yet is forced into by threats or drugging. There’s even a scene featuring something called “new born porn” which disgusts Milos so intensely that he attempts to leave despite being under the influence and not in the best shape physically. Sadly, it doesn’t work and Milos is brought back into the fold kept all the more suggestible with an endless stream of injections.
We do witness another person trying to put a stop to the madness. Lejla (Katarina Žutić), a former co-star of Milos and the one who brought this job to him, does voice some concern and tries to leave the situation with Milos. Clearly, this doesn’t work either and the last we or Milos sees of Lejla is footage of her restrained to a wall, badly beaten, and being forced to fellate a man who then suffocates her with his erect penis. While it’s one of the more upsetting scenes, it’s also a sequence that lends the most validity to Spasojević’s statements: we fetishize suffering and desire to see it, yet we always control the way it’s presented to us. From when Lejla puts her foot down to her death scene, we see a microcosm of brutality, censorship, and the chokehold irony of getting what you want. Spasojević claims that people want to see the story of what Serbia went through in the nineties but they want to see it in a way that doesn’t challenge them, that gives them a compartmentalized and safe way to experience the suffering.
Again, this is not to say that I necessarily agree with or think that all these points are made stunningly well throughout the film. What Spasojević did right is creating a sympathetic character in Milos. He’s in need of money, he has a family that he loves, and he shows concern for pretty much everyone when he’s not in a drugged state. The monster he becomes under the control of Vukmir is unrecognizable to the man he is normally. It could be argued that this is pointing not to the strangulation of artistic expression, but to what the post-war Serbian government creates of its people. Like The Spirit of The Beehive, a movie that portrays Spain after Franco as mechanical and passionless, A Serbian Film feels for the character being perverted further and further away from who he is by nature. The question becomes then, how much torture do we watch a character go through to make a point?
A Serbian Film is not even close to the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen. While well-made on a technical level, the blood and gore on display has a playful look to it like something from a Grindhouse movie. This does rob the more shocking moments of their power, which I don’t think was the intention behind an otherwise purposeful directorial choice. Salo, or 120 Days in Sodom (1975) was actually a much more upsetting film for me to sit through; one that continued to gross me out long after I watched it. Salo is famously about the rise of fascism in Italy, and while it’s easy for us to know theoretically that fascism is bad, the film does a pretty excellent job of making you understand just how terrible it is. It’s a movie that you sometimes want to turn it off then think to yourself, “I can’t even sit through this and fascism is worse than this. I’ve got to at least make it to the end.” A Serbian Film comes close to hitting that mark but missed it a little for me. It’s definitely more than the 'trash' it so often gets labeled as. Yet the metaphors and allegories tend to get muddled in places, which bogs down some of the more incendiary themes.
The ending of A Serbian Film in which Milos unknowingly rapes his wife and son then makes the choice with his wife that they should all die together by suicide is what really tethers the movie to its ideals. It shows that life is cheap and there's profit to be made off of suffering as it’s revealed that the family suicide was filmed and porn stars are brought in to have sex with the dead bodies. It makes disposable the people from whom the system has stolen, and uses them in a money-hungry cycle even after their death. If the whole movie could have had the impact and intensity of the last few scenes, I think there would be more votes in the “art” camp for this one. Spasojević has been quoted saying that he wished he made the movie more extreme, which demonstrates his flawed logic, thinking in terms of 'extreme' instead of powerful. Extreme has a tendency to read as over-the-top and the over-the-top scenes in A Serbian Film don’t hit quite as hard as the ones that aim for the soul by way of the jugular.
For anyone thinking that they wouldn’t be able to handle a movie like this, I extend the challenge for you to watch it. I do defend its existence and its attempt at a message but I’d also like to dispel some of the mythos surrounding it having so many graphic, controversial scenes. More people have heard of it than have watched it, and its half-deserved reputation as being exploitative trash precedes it considerably. If you have been able to sit through Silence of the Lambs or Seven then you could probably handle A Serbian Film. In some ways, it’s a movie that’s trying too hard to shock and not hard enough to make a point but once in a while, the message is heard loud and clear. To me, those moments are enough to recommend giving this brutal, if just a bit desperate, film a shot.