A SERBIAN FILM Review

I've long been devoted to the notion that how you watch a film is as important as what you watch. Recommending films to other people is often far trickier than you may have bargained for - what you really need to do is suggest not just a film, but a whole viewing context. Obviously this is fraught with problems and uncontrollable factors, but I think the theory is sound. The crazy first night at a festival is a very different prospect to a laptop watched in bed.

By now most Twitch regulars will have heard much about A Serbian Film, hopefully without too many spoilers. My own experience of the film will no doubt have differed from other Twitch scribes' and it certainly appears that the context of viewing this particular movie can have as much of an effect on the reaction to it as the content does. Likewise, individual socio-cultural perspectives seem to have heightened importance. So, here goes a UK perspective...

 In August Frightfest decided not to screen A Serbian Film in a cut version when Westminster Council insisted that it could only be shown once granted a BBFC certificate (festivals are usually allowed to screen pre-certificate versions). Come October, however, Raindance managed to screen an uncut version by claiming it was a 'private screening'. Good work. The screening I got along to was at the somewhat iconic Prince Charles Cinema in London's West End - it was the heavily cut, BBFC-endorsed print with a staggering 4m 11s removed from the runtime. The producer and director were keen to impress on us that no complete scenes were cut, just a large number (49) of specific shots. The BBFC reports "Cuts required to remove portrayals of children in a sexualised or abusive context and images of sexual and sexualised violence which have a tendency to eroticise or endorse the behaviour. Cuts made in accordance with BBFC Guidelines and policy." Is that appropriate or even accurate? I simply don't know. But what I do know is that this is the version that most law-abiding UK viewers will see when the film gets released theatrically on 10th December, and subsequently on DVD.

Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) is a retired porn star. Not just any old porn star, but a true legend. Now living the quiet life with his wife and young son, he struggles to make ends meet and is lured back to the sex industry by the promise of a pay cheque that will set his family up for life. The catch is that self-professed 'artist' Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic) won't reveal the exact nature of the job until Milos has signed a contract and committed to the project. Though obviously concerned, Milos can't turn down the money and agrees to take part in Vukmir's exercise in high-end art-porn. Once the project gets underway alarm bells ring, and Milos is confronted with some highly disturbing and violent sexual encounters that turn out to be just the beginning...

Positioned as an allegory for the exploitation of the Serbian nation over the past two decades, director Srdjan Spasojevic is intent on avoiding the inevitable sensationalism that comes with such material. If A Serbian Film represents the sentiments of a nation that feels it's been fucked over one too many times, by the government, by employers, by neighbouring countries, by themselves then it's one extremely angry nation. In a Q&A after the film Spasojevic started by claiming it was never conceived as an allegory. Yet, all involved in the distribution are at pains to push this angle ad nauseum. Ironically this need to self-justify actually does a disservice to the film and feels like a misguided attempt to avoid an inevitable, narrow-minded media onslaught. So when the director claims he never intended to shock people either, you can but hide a smirk.

Whether you buy into the allegory or not, it's without doubt a very well made film, with superb special effects and pacing that keeps you gripped. Milos is a compelling figure, no doubt. But the audience reaction - not just mine, but a significant chunk of those present - was that of people watching something absurd. Given the explicit content, the odd nervous giggle is to be expected, but this went beyond that to a palpable feeling that through its inexhaustible striving to shock and provoke, the visceral impact was actually muted. Of course, no-one's suggesting that rape, murder and sexual violence are 'funny'; rather the unrelenting onslaught of abuse turns into some bleak, absurdist nightmare. Think of the worst possible thing that could ever happen to these characters and put it up on screen - that seems to be the guiding principal behind much of A Serbian Film. That's not say there aren't effective moments in the more extreme sections. The final sexual confrontation and metaphorical 'climax' of a near rabid Milos is indeed an inspired piece of lunacy, both a fitting money shot and a surreal catastrophe.

 I enjoyed A Serbian Film, despite its horrific subject matter, and I know some of the people who shared this particular experience of it did too. Not enjoyed in the sense that I'd like to watch it over and over again, but it's a gripping, well-made thriller and seeing such a notorious movie is something of an event. It doesn't work as a horror flick though, and isn't half as traumatic as the likes of Martyrs, which left me physically shaken. Maybe the uncut version tips the balance into something altogether more sobering, and maybe Brits are a good deal more cynical and sarcastic than other nations. Perhaps one day I'll see the uncut version and pen an update.

A Serbian Film (cut version) is at UK cinemas from 10th December 2010 through Revolver Entertainment.
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