As a new decade dawns in coalition Britain, the country appears to find itself on the threshold of repeating a similar pattern of misdirection-by-moral-panic as beset it in the early eighties, when Thatcherite economic policy left the UK submerged in a deep recession and with crippling levels of unemployment. The Video Nasty panic conveniently came along just at that moment, and served as a handy distraction from the true horrors being perpetrated on the populace by its leaders. It’s hard not to see a connection when, just as a Conservative-led coalition Government promises years of savage austerity cuts, to take effect from 2011, the UK’s censorship body, the BBFC -- responsible for awarding certification to all commercially released viewing material in the country -- once again seems to becoming something of a force to be reckoned with in public life. We learn that the forthcoming re-make of “I Spit on Your Grave” is to be cut by nearly a minute (the original is one of the few films from that ‘Nasty’ era as yet still unavailable uncut in the UK) and the nihilistic political-allegory-as-torture-porn shenanigans of “A Serbian Film” have just been passed, but with a whopping four minutes excised from the running time.
Touted as being possibly one of the most censored films of the last twenty years, “A Serbian Film” comes to UK Blu-ray after twelve months of controversial festival appearances around the world and heaps of predicable tabloid opprobrium. The film’s young director and producer team, Srdjan Spasojevic and Nikola Pantelic, and its critic-turned screenwriter Alexsander Radivojevic, insist that the film is a political allegory about the modern state of Serbia, intended as an expression of their frustration and anger at the recent troubled history of their once war-torn country and the political corruption they see as having become endemic to the region’s way of living in recent years. Everyday life for the average person has become pornographic, they claim; everyone has to accept that they will be exploited from birth to death and even beyond just to survive. As metaphors go, the unwary viewer will quickly learn that the filmmakers have certainly represented their viewpoint extremely literally.
Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) is a retired porn star now living a quiet existence in Serbia with his beautiful wife Maria (Jelena Gavrilovic) and his angelic-looking six-year old son Petar. When a former co- star called Layla (Katarina Zutic) contacts him with the offer of one last job that will set Milos and his family up financially for life, his initial reluctance eventually gives way to temptation and he is introduced to the man behind the ‘project’ – a former child psychologist turned filmmaker by the name of Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic). As part of his contract, Milos will not be given access to a script or any information about what the film he is to take part in will entail, but will receive his instructions from the director on the fly via a concealed earpiece, whilst being constantly filmed on hand-held digital video cameras by Vukmir’s inscrutable crew. The filmed vignettes he finds himself involved in quickly become violent and disturbing, but when he is coerced into performing a sexual act in front of a child (who is dressed in an Alice in Wonderland costume), he draws the line and refuses to participate any further. Feigning acceptance of this, Vukmir shows Milos one of his previous films -- and what the disgusted Milos is made to witness on screen is so horrific it convinces him that his former employer is completely insane. Unfortunately Vukmir has spiked Milos’s Scotch with a potent, psychosis inducing cocktail of mind-altering drugs and Viagra! He wakes up four days later in his empty house, covered in blood and with more blood all over the bed sheets. With his wife and son nowhere to be found and no memory whatsoever about what has occurred in the last forty-eight hours, Milos sets out to uncover the truth about those missing days by trawling through the recent camera footage stored on cassettes in Vikmur’s now empty house. What he discovers about his experiences during that dreadful time, rekindles memories that reveal such an all-consuming descent into the most soul annihilating form of hell, that there is no possible way back from the knowledge they open up.
With the film starting with a scene in which Milos and Maria walk in on their six year old son unknowingly watching one of his dad’s old XXX porno videos it is clear that “A Serbian Film” is plunging head long into areas that are bound to get it in to hot water. It is rather hard for me to make any kind of legitimate critical assessment of the film Spasojevic intended to make, though, since this UK version has been cut by nearly four minutes, and the cuts are spread over a total of eleven scenes. Thus, it should be borne in mind that any opinion expressed is based purely on what has actually made it past the BBFC into this Cert 18 approved version. Filmed on high quality digital video using the RED ONE camera, in 2.35:1, the image quality captured in the Blu-ray transfer is excellent, beautifully sharp and richly textured, capturing cinematographer Vemanja Jovanov’s somewhat muted palette with near perfect fidelity. The opening scene not withstanding -- actually the prelude to Milos’s later sensitive handling of his son’s barely comprehended first sexual stirrings – the film’s opening half is a quiet delineation of the sedate family life Milos has succeeded in forging in the wake of his former lifestyle. Srdjan Todorovic plays the part with a crumpled charm and a weary resignation, while Slobodan Bestic, as Milos’s policeman brother Marko, is marked as sleazy from his first appearance, and by the time we get to the scene in which he’s seen drooling over Milos’s wife with unrestrained lust while she eats an apple at the kitchen sink, until he has to retire to the bathroom in order to vigorously masturbate over this symbolically biblical image, it becomes hardly a spoiler to reveal that he is to play a major role in the later events of the film. The central plotline, involving rich clients paying to be supplied with extreme content pornography featuring the most depraved acts imaginable, is not a million miles away from the subject matter of Eli Roth’s two “Hostel” films -- still the best and most artistically valid examples of the so-called torture porn genre, with a similarly politically motivated charge underpinning their excesses.
The initial scenes in which Milos -- willingly at first -- takes part in Vukmir’s bizarre project, soon lead to a noticeable shift away from the Spartan and realistic tone Spasojevic adopts in the first half of the movie, towards a semi hallucinatory, almost surrealist approach to the imagery, with unsettling juxtapositions of images and the graphic illustration of sexualised violence. Milos finds himself in a featureless spot-lit room with a chequered floor where strange characters begin to suddenly appear as if by magic and brutal, violent and sexually explicit vignettes materialise with Milos in the middle of them, as though in a dream or nightmare. The film takes its downward plunge into nihilist horror of the most pitiless kind the moment Milos has Vukmir’s true agenda revealed to him in the form of another of the filmmaker’s previous works projected on a role-down screen in Vikmur’s living room: after grizzly (simulated) imagery of a baby being born in a dingy cell-like room, delivered by the kind of anonymous, muscle-bound and skin-headed character that always seem to end up populating these Europe-set torture porn movies, the film displays an act involving the still bloody new-born which, in this cut version, remains entirely off screen, but the nature of which is revealed by Milos’s reaction and by the crazed Vukmir screaming after him, as he leaves the room, ‘I’ve invented a new genre – new-born porn!’
Milos, with his memory of the four days since he left Vukmir’s house wiped out, soon starts to experience flash-backs as he discovers the sick footage he has been instrumental in creating and taking part in. Most of the last half of the film consists in a mosaic of these flashbacks, eventually coalescing into a narrative that reveals exactly how Milos later comes to find him-self waking up alone in his blood splattered bedroom. This second half of the movie is given over virtually entirely to a series of staged sequences of such grand guiognal grotesqueness, and which are so over-the-top that the film actually begins to lose much of the genuine emotional power it’d previously built up. At about the point a zombielike, Viagra-fuelled, drug-crazed Milos is shown violently raping a chained-up woman and then continuing to plunge at the twitching corpse after beheading her with a sword mid-coitus, it begins to dawn that whatever the makers’ claims about seeking to make a serious political point with the film, it is definitely designed to grab as much attention as possible above any other consideration. There’s one moment in particular where this desire to create outrageous imagery for the sake of it becomes positively detrimental to the more genuinely disturbing moments the film does manage to conjure up. A horrific revelation near the end of the film provokes Milos into an act of reprisal that is so ludicrous that it cannot fail to provoke at least a bleak kind of laughter in anyone still watching – but it comes literally seconds after possibly the most chilling sequence in the film, and one of the most heartrending you’re ever likely to see in any film. Perhaps Spasojevic intends the juxtaposition as some kind of existential statement about the absurdity and hopelessness of existence (certainly the very final frames of the film seem to suggest as much, as even the only peace Milos can attempt to find with his now shattered family is soiled and abused in the most grotesque terms Imaginable), but if that was the intention, it doesn’t really work and such absurdist comic-book splatter completely stamps out the full force of the grim events preceding it, and also leads, at least this viewer, to doubt the true intentions and sincerity of the filmmakers.
Heavily cut though it is “A Serbian Film” remains an extreme, intense and unpleasant viewing experience. It shouldn’t have been cut since there was no genuine harm done to any one participating and no children were really ever involved in any sexual scenes (a prosthetic puppet was used for the baby rape scene, created by East European special effects wizard Miroslav Lakrobija) and to get any kind of titillation out of even the straighter scenes of violent sexual conduct, you’d already have to be too far gone for there to be any hope of your rehabilitation as a member of the human race!
Although most of the many cuts imposed on Srdjan Spasojevic’s debut feature could not have feasibly been avoided under the BBFC’s current guidelines concerning sexual violence, there does nonetheless seem to be a newly confident tone discernable in the shrill condemnation of the Daily Mail brigade these days – and the absurd notion that the BBFC are providing a protective security blanket for a nation incapable of making up its own mind about what it watches and how it is to be interpreted, appears to be gaining a new legitimacy it hasn’t enjoyed in a long time (although a similar hysteria based around concerns about violent video games has been prevalent for a long time). The BBFC’s lengthy ruling, justifying why it has deemed it necessary to make forty-nine cuts across eleven scenes to the film as it was submitted, is, on the surface, couched in very mild, reasonable language. But underneath there is an assumed, patronising air of ‘daddy-knows-best’ paternalism evident in its claims to be protecting the public from moral harm. Despite admitting that nothing in the film actually breaches any laws, notably in relation to the Protection of Children Act 1978, the same assumption that the public needs saving from corruption is discernable in the applied tone throughout the ruling. Of course, in all fairness it has to be pointed out that the level of sophistication in the development of special effects in the horror genre since the original Video Nasty era, has now made feasible the representation of events that would have been impossible to replicate back in 1981. In recent years, the cultural zeitgeist, particularly in the US, has moved away from fantasy horror and more towards the depiction of extreme physical torture on screen, although sexual violence has arguably gone down in mainstream genre films since the heyday of material like “The New York Ripper”.
“A Serbian Film” continues in that vein, but takes things to arguably the extreme limit of what it is possible to legally depict in a motion picture while maintaining a realistic tone. The acts depicted here are in many cases deeply repugnant and are clearly deliberately aimed at pushing buttons and breaching taboos that, a few years ago, it wouldn’t even have been technically possible to address. Now we are in an age when literally anything imaginable can be simulated and recreated on screen, so it’s not surprising that the censorship issue should rear its ugly head again; the sense that we are building up to a situation where reactionary forces will soon attempt to use these issues for their own ends is hard to shake though. Interestingly, as of writing, no concerted tabloid banning campaign has yet emerged around “A Serbian Film”; severely cut yes, and with its message bowdlerised as a result (or so its makers claim), this imperfect but brutally compulsive film is still available, and this version is still powerful, grotesquely absurd and (to some) doubtlessly will be very offensive. But as times get harder in the coming years, don’t be too surprised if the censorious treatment meted out to this film turns out to be merely the vanguard of a much more strident and robust urge to censor our viewing habits.
Revolver Entertainment have done an excellent job with this movie’s high definition transfer, which looks sharp throughout and has excellent shadow detail in what is often a grungy, grimy looking movie. The audio is punchy and dynamic where it needs to be with Sky Wikluh’s excellent techno-based soundtrack of ominous drones and doom-laden beats booming satisfyingly out of the speakers. The only extras are a lengthy and slightly facetious introduction by the director and a 10 minute question-and-answer session that was conducted by Alan Jones with Srdjan Spasojevic and Nikola Pantelic after the film’s premiere screening at the Prince Charles Cinema in London on 25th January 2010. The Blu-ray comes packaged with an informative essay/interview written by Jones, which also provides the filmmakers with the opportunity to make a more eloquent written defence of their movie
“A Serbian Film” displays very high quality filmmaking skills and can’t be easily ignored; it is ultimately, I think, a massive contradiction -- an exploitation film about exploitation! – but if you’ve the stomach for it, the film packs just about as powerful a gut punch to the viewer’s sense of decency as it is possible to legally deliver.