I wouldn’t say I “chickened out” at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival. The fact was, when it came time to make time to see “A Serbian Film,” I didn’t make it a priority. Why? Because Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse supreme commander, had informed me that the film was the most disturbing movie he’d ever seen. “What,” you may be thinking, “doesn’t that mean you HAVE to see it!?!” Yes… and no. If movi-watching was some form of dick-measurement contest where one finds out how manly they are based on what they can endure cinematically then, yes, by that flawed logic, I needed to see the film. The “no” comes from the fact that movie-watching isn’t a competition and that I know Tim is no slouch when it comes to extreme cinema and I, honestly, don’t dive as deep. I’m not a wimp, but, yeah, I know my limits and if Tim League was disturbed enough about a movie to outright tell me so then, well, I probably would not have been able to handle it. It wasn’t wimping out, it was low cinema self-esteem.
And I mention that context because it is important to note, before you read the actual criticism of the film, that my opinion of the film was not formed in a bubble. After that first night of screenings at SXSW, fellow journalists starting whispering about what they’d seen onscreen. While details were left out, the broad strokes were painted. Simply, while I didn’t know everything that was to come in “A Serbian Film,” I’d been clued into the most disturbing. In other words, very few surprises awaited me. Similar to my first viewing of Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” it wasn’t about being surprised by what I was going to see, it was a curiosity about how they could film and show the things I’d been told about (“how could they possibly do X and get away with it!?!”). At the same time, sometimes you have to make a decision about whether you need certain cinematic visions in your memory bank. While I’m not going to let you know about that imagery here, I will say it doesn’t take much searching online to find out pretty much every secret about “A Serbian Film.” Which makes me wonder what is worse: seeing the film not knowing what you’re in for, or knowing and then still seeing it? Did I watch “A Serbian Film” to make myself feel better about bailing on it at SXSW, or did I watch it because, even though you know your own cinematic limits, they should always be tested and challenged? As I’ve found myself in Ambivalent Land with many films lately, maybe I needed to see something that I knew I was going to have a strong opinion about.
Rambling… rambling… what’s hard for me to handle is that, based on what I knew about the film going in, I was prepared to be disgusted, destroyed, maybe even a little tainted for life. I was prepared to curse the film’s existence, scream to the high heavens about how “shocking, disgusting and degrading does not equal art.” The keyboard was primed to type “zero stars.” What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was to find the level of appreciation for the film that I did. As horrible events and imagery unfolded onscreen, I couldn’t help but be impressed with how well the film was put together; how good the film looked, how every element of the film combined to make an unforgettable cinematic experience, but not just by being obscene, shocking and over-the-top. Would I call this film art? Isn’t that the problem, I don’t know what to call the f*****g thing. I don’t even know if it justifies its own existence by the time it wraps up, but how many films do? Did “Pluto Nash” justify its existence at any point? Did it ever try?
But I’ve gone on too long with the questions and the context and I haven’t told you anything about what the film is about, so let me correct that here. “A Serbian Film” is about retired porn star Milos (Srdjan Todorovic). With money tight, and trying to provide for his wife and child, Milos is lured back into porn by former co-star Lejla (Katarina Zutic). She knows a director, Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), who is interested in making something more than your run-of-the-mill porn flick. He wants to make art, and he’ll pay Milos a ton of money to do so. The catch is that Milos doesn’t know what the film is about ahead of time, he just has to go with the daily flow. Unfortunately for Milos, Vukmir’s idea of a pornographic art film is, to make a huge understatement, extremely twisted.
That’s the setup, and the film’s pacing is perfect. As an audience, you’re on a rollercoaster for 45 minutes before you realize that, Good LORD, this ride is going really, really high up. But even when things start going to Hell, you never know if what you’ve just seen, or heard, is the biggest drop the ride is going to give you. Whenever I saw something I thought was as depraved and horrible as it could get, the film revealed that, on this coaster, that was just a sharp right turn or a little twirl; the real drop off was still to come… and then it’d happen again. Just keep reminding yourself, if the turns, twists and drops are too much, that, like any rollercoaster, eventually the ride does end.
I am ridiculously torn about this film. I can’t, with any sense of civic responsibility, suggest that anyone should see this movie. That said, as a passionate fan of film, I think this is the type of challenging cinema that should be seen once… just by those who can handle it. But I can’t make that judgment call for you (I could barely make that call for myself, and I now know why all the festival programmers are so tortured when deciding whether to program this film). I saw horrific acts of depravity, sexual and otherwise, that I have never seen before nor even imagined I’d see in my lifetime (or even imagined period). It helps that, sometimes, the film reminds you that it’s a film with some less-than-convincing special effects, as that allowed me to go, “right, this is a film, and not just a film, but a film that’s being shown in film festivals around the world, programmed by people I know and respect and who aren’t evil, so it is likely not going to kill me or scar me for life… right?” Plus, at a certain point, things are so over-the-top awful that you almost can’t believe that it could happen anyway… and that optimistic view is a comfort.
What isn’t comforting is hours later, when you’re surfing the web, and you come across a search result that reminds you of something you saw in the movie. Then what “A Serbian Film” showed you isn’t so over-the-top anymore. Maybe it’s a sick eventuality. Maybe it’s already out there. Of all the things that disgusted me while watching the movie, nothing disturbed me more than that thought AFTER the film was over.
Listen, I’m giving this film 4 stars, but I don’t want you to think that means I think everyone should go see this movie tomorrow, or even at all, which is what my normal 4-star-or-higher rating would imply. The structure of the film is clever and perfectly paced, the cinematography is gorgeous and alluring (which makes the horror all that more painful; why does it have to be so awful and yet filmed so nicely), the score is appropriately batty and connected to the proper, random nerve endings and Srdjan Todorovic’s portrayal of Milos is emotionally epic and brilliant. I’m not tossing “brilliant” out willy-nilly here, Todorovic takes what is easily some of the worst things any actor has been asked to do in a film, even if it is fake, and not only commits to it, but gets you emotionally connected enough to follow it through to the end. And f**k him for that, because it meant I took a trip through Hell but, like him, didn’t I choose to?
I can’t define whether “A Serbian Film” is art or abomination and, as I said, I can’t claim that the film ever says anything so convincing as to make me believe the imagery it shows me is justified at any point. Hell, I don’t plan on ever watching this movie again, honestly. However, taken as a complete film, I cannot deny that it is a powerful, challenging cinematic experience that was worth my time and effort… and that scares me to no end.
This review was originally published on July 19, 2010