Directed by Srdjan Spasojevic in 2010, A Serbian Film has been the subject of no small amount of controversy since it played a few festival dates and was released on DVD and Blu-ray in some European territories. Not only did a German film lab refuse to print the movie, but it's been banned in Norway, heavily cut in the UK and released cut and then later banned entirely in Australia. The film is strong stuff to be sure, but is it without merit?
When the film begins, a young boy named Petar (played by an uncredited child actor) is watching a porno movie without his parents realizing. They walk in on him and while he's too young to really understand what he's seeing, he's perceptive enough to know that he's watching his father, Milos (Srdjan Todorovic), on the screen. It turns out Milos is a former porn star, one of the biggest male performers in the industry at one time, though he's recently retired from that business and settled down with his beautiful wife Marija (Jelena Gavrilovic). As Milos and Marija settle down for the night, she asks him if he misses his old job. He says not but admits he misses the money, as they aren't exactly rolling in cash these days. No one is really too surprised when Milos gets a call from a former co-worker the next day asking him to come and meet her about a job. He agrees and she tells him about Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), the latest and greatest 'art porn' director out to change the industry. It turns out Vukmir is a big fans of Milos and considers him an artist - of course he wants him for his latest picture and is willing to pay him a ridiculous amount of money for it. He talks it over with Marija and even discusses it with his cop brother, Marco (Slobodan Bestic) who can't turn up any dirt on the director, and agrees to take the job. Of course, it turns out that Vukmir is making an all together different kind of adult movie, one concerned as much with death as it is with sex.
According to an interview that Srdjan Spasojevic and his co-writer, Aleksandar Radivojevic, gave to the horror website Bloody Disgusting the ideas for this film came from spending the last two decades in Serbia where not only has the country been in turmoil, but so has the film scene. The intent with the picture was to take their own problems as filmmakers and as Serbians and channel them into a stylish and slick horror picture that would reflect their frustrations and provide some food for thought in the form of a few different and very confrontational metaphors. As such, the character of Milos is literally and figuratively getting fucked not just by the people he has sex with in the movie but by the people who are pulling the strings behind the scenes in very much the same way the writers are claiming those trying to make artistic films in their homeland are getting fucked by the mainstream cinema institutions who try to eliminate the market for such things. As such, this movie intentionally pushes the envelope and breaks down quite a few boundaries often considered taboo by even the most ardent and adventurous of moviegoers and much of which will probably go over the heads of most western audiences who will have trouble looking past the very sexualized violence and depravity laid bare before the lens.
Made on a low budget and without any computer generated effects at all, the film has a believably seedy atmosphere that makes for some interesting contrasts. Milos home life seems balanced and aside from a bout of rough sex that he has with his wife (who insists she 'fuck' her rather than 'love' her after watching one of his old movies where he's doing just that to a female co-star) there's not much to indicate that he's capable of what he's later put through. His dwelling is modest, his home clean but not fancy, which contrasts with Vukmir's place, a veritable palace complete with a gorgeous assistant running around doing his bidding. This is then later contrasted with the orphanage where the 'movie' is shot and where the film really kicks things into high gear as far as its disturbing and frequently very explicit content is concerned. As such, essentially the film shows us the glitzy side of all of this and then rubs or nose in the nastier side.
In and amongst all of this insanely depraved behavior, however, the film has some characteristics that are likely going to go unnoticed. Some scenes show a clever, albeit very twisted, sense of black humor to them. There are moments where the dialogue actually borders on the witty and which indicate that, yes, this is all going to go so very far over the top but not just for the sake of shock value. Additionally, the film is slick looking, well edited and set to a heavy, and appropriately pulsing, electronic score that suits the production. The effects are all done very well and the performances, particularly from Srdjan Todorovic (who is apparently quite a well regarded actor in his homeland) are strong across the board. The supporting cast are strong here but it's Srdjan Todorovic that the film is based around and as such he has more to do than the rest. He makes the most of it and for better or worse he makes his character's transformation completely believable. The fact that he's at least initially doing what he's doing to provide for his family adds a certain level of pathos to the film and actually winds up making it as much a tragedy as a horror film.
To be sure, this isn't a movie that's going to appeal to a mass audience no matter how much the controversy surrounding it will get people interested in it. The involvement of a young boy in some of the movie's more depraved scenes will instantly raise some ire while the graphic sexual and violent content ensures it'll never get through the front door of the vast majority of households in North America. The film does, however, work on the same level as better known works of confrontational and transgressive cinema like Gaspar Noe's films, Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, and Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust.
Note 1: It's possible that this Blu-ray release is slightly cut as the European Blu-ray release runs almost two minutes longer. There are discussions on various internet message boards about this, but without a longer version to compare this version to, it's hard to say what's missing and the film still packs plenty of punch.
Note 2 - MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD:A reader named Jeff was kind enough to email regarding the cuts and stated: "I read your review of 'A Serbian Film' and... there will be about 1-2 minutes missing. I saw the unrated Invincible Pictures release and I have an uncut copy I bought from overseas (Sweden). The newborn porn scene is about a minute longer and they show the reveal of his sons face during the scene with the brother doing it with his wife and Milos doing it with his son near the end of the movie where Vladimir pulls the hoods off the two victims they also show a little blood going down the sons leg.END OF MAJOR SPOILERS
A Serbian Film looks pretty good on Blu-ray, presented here in AVC encoded 2.35.1 widescreen and in 1080p high definition. Much of the film is shot inside the small apartment or in the dimly lit rooms where Milo's movie is being shot, so don't expect a particularly colorful film but there are a few scenes that do demonstrate some really nice color reproduction when the movie calls for it. There's a fair bit of blood on screen in a few scenes and the reds come across as appropriately sickly and gross. Detail is generally strong, so be prepared to see every bruise on the battered body of one of Milo's co-stars or revel in the dirt that coats the face of another participant. Some scenes are softer than others but this looks to be a stylistic choice rather than a transfer flaw. There are no noticeable compression artifacts to complain about nor is there much in the way of shimmering or edge enhancement to discuss. While the content might be dirty as sin, the transfer is clean, crisp and clear.
The only audio option on the disc is a Serbian language DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo track with forced (though not burned in) English subtitles. The mix sounds pretty good even if a 5.1 track probably would have made a few of the more intense scenes even more involving. There's a lot of good left to right channel separation up front and a solid low end to balance things out here. The film's score has an appropriate amount of power behind it while the dialogue is well balanced and clear enough. The subtitles are easy enough to read and free of any obvious typos. Foreign releases have had proper 5.1 mixes included, this one does not.
Extras? You get a menu, chapter selection, a cardboard slipcase cover and a download code for a digital copy - but no actual supplements, which is a shame as it probably would have been pretty interesting to get some input from the cast and crew who worked on this movie. The cut UK release included a statement from the director and a Q&A session from a screening but neither of those supplements have been ported over.
How much you get out of A Serbian Film will depend on what you're looking for in the first place. If you're looking for a well acted piece of confrontational and controversial horror cinema, the kind that unsettles you and that gets under your skin, well, this will definitely do the trick. If you're looking for political allegory and deeper meaning, the film will fall short in that area for most western viewers. That's not to say it isn't there, but if it is, it can be tricky to find and to make sense out of. With that said, this is strong stuff and those who want to experience such extremities can consider it recommended simply because it 'goes there' and does so without flinching and without apologizing but at the same time it spends enough of its length letting us get to know its lead that there is at least some emotional impact. This will no doubt be a film that divides audiences - if you're a fan of transgressive and confrontational movies, consider it recommended, everyone else should rent it first simply because a lot of people won't want to watch this more than once, if at all.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.