Saturday, 12 March 2011

A Serbian Film

UK DVD release date: 3rd Jan 2011
Certificate: 18
Running time: 104 Mins
Director: Srdjan Spasojevic
Starring: Srdjan Todorovic, Sergej Trifunovic, Jelena Gavrilovic
Genre: Thriller/Mystery
UK distributor:  Revolver
Format: DVD / Blu Ray
Country: Serbia

Most reviews have the potential of swaying a readers decision as to watch or not but the truth is all reviews on A Serbian Film are pointless.  You’re either inquisitive enough or you’re not.  The controversy over A Serbian Film has been raging since the world premiere and is refusing to go away, the recent charges levied against Angel Sala for screening the film in Barcelona is testament to that.  Add the fact that the film is arriving on U.S shores, there’s little sign of the debate settling.  So what’s it all about?


Milo (Srdjan Todorovic) is one of Serbia’s top porn stars, though not retired.  Faced with a life of looking back at past glories Milo is tempted back into the game for one last film.  The job in question is an experimental “art house” film to be directed by the genius or mad director Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic).  Though initially reluctant Milo eventually gets involved in the project and wakes days later with no recollection of what he’s done and where.

In a lot of ways A Serbian Film walks a fine line between a film noir mystery on par with The Big Sleep and a heist movie like The Hot Rock, a retired (insert occupation) gets brought in from the cold for one last (insert goal), and at it’s best does create to both genres.  Todorovic plays the role well, from the outset you could be forgiven for wondering how you could warm to the lead as after all the controversy of the film is born out of his story arch but you do.  Even in the most graphically disturbing moments of recollection of retrieved footage of the lost two days you can’t help but like Milo, which is a true testament to Todorovic’s acting abilities and Spasojevic & Aleksandar Radivojevic’s screenplay as his humanity shines through.  Sergej Trifunovic (as Vukmir) is dependently over the top in the role of director and unfortunately tips over the “troubled genius vs. psychopathic mad man” balance. If he'd maintained the balance though it could have been extremely playful.  The remainder of the cast all provide surprisingly strong performances in a project that’s clearly close to all involved with special mention to Jelena Gavrilovic (Marija) and Katarina Zutic (Lejla) who highlight the two worlds in which Milo exists wonderfully and truly flesh out a social dynamic that allows the audience to identify with those involved.


The film itself is a visually accomplished and polished affair that manages to blend several difference styles of cinematography beautifully without leaving disjointing transitions between domestic working class Serbia, affluent Serbia and the underworld of Milo’s profession.  Some of the stylists of the porn shoot are interesting, a world somewhere between high value valley pics and a darkly menacing horror movie with an edge cut from Alice in Wonderland.  The biggest issue in these scenes is the score.  This might sound odd, but given a lot of the content but structurally it’s a valid point.  The heavy handedness of the score is there to accompany and even heighten the audience’s reaction to the scenes unfolding.  This manipulative use of audio is a big favourite of those not so scary teen horror films and is cheap and unnecessary in a film that visually can and will leave you a little different from before you watch it.  It’s the sort of score you would expect from a Norwegian metal band or low budget goth friendly indie film and jars in ways that could not have been intended by the director.


A lot of reviews out there will liken this film to titles like Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, The Gateway Meat or Grotesque but this is rather insulting to A Serbian Film.  Yes they are all difficult films to watch but unlike these films ASF strives to be something greater than simply a film of controversy.  Grotesque is little more than an hour and ten minutes of torture porn and a vile copy of Flowers of Flesh and Blood which caused a lot of controversy itself when it was released.  A Serbian Film sets its stall out as dramatization of the recent history of a tortured and scarred nation.  Having dove deeper for the sake of reviewing the more you read into the history and the transcripts of the atrocities in former Yugoslavia the more you see that it holds up.  Reports of friends turning on one another, butchering and raping one another just to stay alive is shocking and should be documented for future generations to remember.  Spasojevic’s film works on that level and is a true victory if it makes people remember the crimes of Milosovic and his regime.  Perhaps had the film been a documentary or a sanitized piece of fiction like Schindler’s List or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas there wouldn’t be so many people with issues to the film.  Their protests are welcome but misplaced, where was their outcry when these events were happening?  Their issues are with censorship-which is a completely different conversation and one that I never hope they win.


The first viewing of this film had me sure that it wasn’t very good and as a film it’s not really, some of the most brutal moments in the film are shocking but the quality of the production value never really let’s you feel how disgustingly brutal it is in the same way you feel it with the Japanese Guinea Pig films of two decades earlier.  The story is strong with regards to characterization but narratively is tired and predictable throughout which could work in the way that it works in film noir but isn’t intelligent enough for that and ultimately levels you disregarding the narrative and living for the set pieces of the drug fuelled porno shoot. Whether it’s the machete doggy sequence of the oral choking or even the *spoiler* new born scene that the BBFC and Spanish legal system have had the biggest issue with, they all seem more than the sum of their parts.


This review, like all the others, will not change your mind as to whether or not you’ll view it and nor should it.  Personally everyone should be made to watch A Serbian Film as it might lead to more people being outraged when these events are taking place rather than when they’re being dramatized but that’s just one opinion.  Ultimately ASF is an excellent example of what mankind is willing to do to one another and the immorality of conscious thought and should be seen as a representation of the recent history of Serbia in a time when rebuilding and recovering is on the increase but as a narrative piece of cinema there’s too many well trodden themes and arcs for it to be truly engaging.  This might sound shocking but you’ve seen it all before…at least narratively!


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