Context is often your most powerful ally when faced with something you don't understand. And in that vein, a little context is probably best presented before diving into a movie like A Serbian Film. Alamo maestro Tim League was disturbed and blown away by this film. Here's a guy who watches countless movies at film festivals around the globe as well as on screeners that filmmakers send him in his capacity as co-founder and head honcho for Fantastic Fest and the SX Fantastic slate that runs during SXSW. Tim's the guy who fought to get Pascal Laugier's Martyrs shown at Fantastic Fest a few years ago. The man has seen movies that have never seen the light of day in most places. And he got up on stage during this film's introduction and admitted to flinching more than once based on the heinous acts depicted in A Serbian Film.
The basic setup is that Milos, a former porn star, has retired and settled down to start a family. But his savings won't last forever, so when a former co-star approaches him with an opportunity for a big payday if he'll shoot a high-concept porn film for a mysterious producer/director, he finds himself saying yes despite his numerous reservations. Milos meets with Vukmir, the mastermind behind the plan, and he signs a contract to appear in the film, despite Vukmir's refusals to tell him much of anything about it. Vukmir is obsessed with exploring the boundaries of art and film through pornography, and even though Milos is uneasy about the arrangement, the money is simply too much to pass up. With his responsibility to provide for his family weighing upon him, Milos finds himself tumbling down the rabbit hole.
This is a film that wears its metaphors on its sleeve. The subtext is so prevalent that it may as well just be text. In fact, things are so apparent that the story and the allegory are almost inextricable. The film uses pornography as its central framework, and as such it doesn't take a huge leap to see how the screwing on screen represents a people being screwed over through the war atrocities and government oppression that have ravished Serbia in the last twenty or so years. I'll be the first to admit that I don't know exactly what's happened in Serbia over the past two decades, but I do remember the war in that region and I can only imagine what the political fallout has been like. To my eyes, however, it's painfully obvious that the filmmakers have been through the fire. This film is their emotional response to those experiences. They're angry and filled with rage, and they're sick of feeling helpless about it. It's the cinematic equivalent of standing up and screaming at the top of your lungs, desperately hoping to find a way to get a piece of your humanity back.
A Serbian Film will probably end up being labeled and pigeonholed for its extreme graphic content. And while that is certainly a part of the film, that's not nearly all that's going on. In fact, for the first 35 minutes of its 99-minute running time, A Serbian Film plays like a supremely well-structured dark thriller. The producers cited a de Palma influence in their introduction, which is definitely there, but even more prevalent is the influence of David Fincher, with certain scenes very reminiscent of his 1997 film The Game. But despite its relatively tame beginnings, the story is clearly ramping up, building slowly but surely to what you know in the back of your mind must be some of the most shocking scenes you'll ever witness. And when the movie gets there, it delivers in spades, over and over again, crossing virtually every boundary there is.
The graphic content is the hinge point. Not only will it be at the forefront of most discussions of the film, but in many ways it may also be the reason most people see it. For better or for worse, A Serbian Film will become infamous for its brutal scenes. Those moments will also be the biggest criticism of the movie, with its detractors questioning the validity of including such content and asking why it's there in the first place. It makes sense to wonder if the most shocking material could have been more implied than explicitly shown, but the question of whether or not the filmmakers had to go to such extremes to get their point across is frankly moot. Obviously they felt they did have to go that far and the film must be judged on what it is and not what it might have been. As it is, it's a ferocious assault on the senses that hits you like a punch in the gut.
A Serbian Film will inevitably be compared to other noteworthy genre films like Irreversible and Martyrs. It's only natural, I suppose, to discuss which film goes farther or hits harder, but I think it's relevant only inasmuch as it factors into whether or not A Serbian Film will hit you the way the filmmakers want it to -- like a brick wall. Most audiences these days, even mainstream audiences, have seen a fair bit of extreme violence and have become desensitized to a certain degree. And the filmmakers are clearly aware of that, as this issue is tackled directly in the film. But I have to say, no matter what you may have seen previously as a viewer; this is a gut-wrenching, arresting and thoroughly captivating film that will challenge you in ways you can't imagine .
This is, quite simply, a flat-out brilliant film. There are no wasted scenes. From the first sequence that establishes the generational divide and the discovery of the sins of the father, each scene is note-perfect in escalating the film to a fever pitch. Content aside, on a purely technical level, this film could be released in theatres tomorrow. It's a beautiful film, amazingly well shot, with clear stylistic influences from '70s grindhouse to giallo. It is a mind-blowing, visceral experience that, days later, I still can't get out of my head. It has sparked some of the best and longest discussions on art and film of the entire festival. A Serbian Film hit me like a shot of adrenaline to the brain. Emotional, angry and intense, this is one of the best films I've seen in a long time.