In this article, I’ll give some context for and analysis of the controversial horror film ‘A Serbian Film’, discuss where you can find it for viewing (both in Pittsburgh and in general), and attempt to give a review – though something like this is tough to review in the traditional sense.
Every once in a while there comes a film that pushes the boundaries of what mainstream society deems acceptable, and the discussion becomes primarily about reactions to the film instead of the film itself. Two recent examples of this are 2005’s ‘Hostel,’ which started a wave of so-called ‘torture’ films, and 2009’s ‘The Human Centipede,’ which features one of the most disturbing surgical operations imaginable and has entered the consciousness of mainstream culture enough to be lampooned on South Park. But this trend is not relegated to recent films – even as far back as the 1930s, films dealing with death, like the original ‘Frankenstein,’ were received with moral outrage. Some would argue it is the job of horror films to surprise and disturb their audience and that can only be done by continually pushing the envelope – but is there a point where we’ve truly gone too far?
‘A Serbian Film’ is the latest to raise that question. It shares elements of both ‘Hostel’ and David Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome,’ in which unwitting victims are tormented as a sick form of entertainment for a niche clientele. But while both prior films dealt with Americans being tortured (with the operation in question being run right out of Pittsburgh (!!!) in ‘Videodrome’), ‘A Serbian Film’ is focused solely on internal Serbian issues. And it also ratchets things up to such a level that ‘Hostel,’ ‘Videodrome,’ and pretty much anything else you can think of, look tame in comparison.
Our protagonist, Milos, is a retired Serbian porn star, trying to provide for his wife and son but escape the less-than-desirable jobs he has been relegated to as he gets older. When an offer to star in a secretive “artistic” endeavor for a large sum of money presents itself, he hesitantly accepts. But as he sees, and is forced to take part in, the twisted material his disturbed and deranged employer is producing, he decides he needs to escape. Suddenly he is at home in his bed – but days have passed, he is covered in blood, and his family is missing. His journey to discover what transpired during the interim will take Milos, and us as viewers, to places you really don’t want to even think about.
It’s tough to surprise audiences these days, but ‘A Serbian Film’ achieves it easily via the combination of sex and violence, and even goes as far as to involve children in a couple particularly twisted scenes. It seems unnecessary to state it, but this is a severely unpleasant film. There is a subtext to this unpleasantness – the film within a film is clearly about the Serbian government and the state of the country post-war, and there is a recurring theme of victimhood. But is the extent of the misery on display necessary for this point to be made clear, and is that point important enough to justify the film? There’s no clear way to answer that, and I don’t have enough knowledge of Serbia to identify with what the filmmaker may have gone through to inspire him to create this film. But in terms of how the film comes across to an outsider, it feels genuine. Rather than feel exploitative, it all seems very matter-of-fact. I believe that horror films provide an important avenue for commentary on society (‘Hostel’, for instance, is a strong statement about Americans traveling abroad post-9/11), and this film seems honestly outraged about the indignities the Serbian people have been forced to endure.
That’s not to say I recommend the film. I think it’s something that’s impossible to ‘enjoy’ in the traditional sense, no matter how well done independent parts of it are. And there are certainly superb elements. The acting ranges from good to exceptional. Milos’s employer / film financer is wonderfully unhinged, and his final scene is genius. The cinematography and directing is strong. And the score is exceptional – put in a different, more palatable film, I think people would be singing its praises. But all this craft is in service of such a dark plot that none of it is worth seeing the film for if you didn’t already intend to.
So where can you find this if you decide to take the plunge? It received a limited theatrical release in the US last May, but Pittsburgh was not one of the select cities – and there is certainly no plan for a wide release. However, the version screened theatrically was rated NC-17 yet still cut by around 6 minutes. There is a VOD option accessible right now from the film’s website, www.serbianfilmmovie.com, featuring an unrated version, and that same unrated version will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in the US on October 25th, 2011. Yet even that unrated version is still cut by around 60 seconds! Overseas releases from the UK and Germany are cut by extreme amounts, to the point where it is almost comical.
The VOD and the October 25th DVD & Blu-ray release are probably the best options – with ~60 seconds cut, you don’t see the full craziness this film goes to, but that is honestly probably a good thing for most viewers. If you want to see every last second, there are two paths – 1) there is a screener DVD you can attempt to purchase on eBay, or download from various less-than-scrupulous websites, or 2) you can import the only uncut official release I am aware of, the Swedish Blu-ray release from Cinematic Vision. This Blu-ray is region B locked and does not feature English subtitles, so you need a PC with a BD-ROM drive so you can overlay a separate subtitle file while playing the Blu-ray Disc. The Swedish Blu-ray is exceptional from a technical viewpoint, but definitely the most difficult and expensive manner.
‘A Serbian Film’ is an undeniably interesting film, and it re-opens the continually evolving discussion of what is acceptable in cinema. The Pittsburgh-set film ‘Videodrome’ is one of my all-time favorites, and this touches on similar though much more extreme themes, so it was on my radar for a long time before I was eventually able to view it. Hopefully this article will provide some context and help inform you on whether or not you want to experience this film. Feel free to comment on the film, the controversy, or cinema in general in the comment section below!
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