Transgressive cinema is not new! For those unaware of the term, it’s essentially a form of cinema that breaches filmic boundaries, creates new ones for itself, and breaks numerous taboos, of one kind or another – not necessarily censorship ones. A SERBIAN FILM (2009, Srdjan Spasojevic) is firmly in the realm of Transgressive Cinema, but one that will probably remain an underground cult barely heard and spoken of.
And Serbia is hardly the hotbed of World Cinema. One of the Baltic States, there aren’t many famous Serbian or Baltic directors one can name, unless you’re the editor of Sight & Sound magazine that is. I’m unsure of how the country will take, to this film being the introductory cinematic announcement to the rest of the globe. So what’s all the fuss about Srdjan Spasojevic’s sick little flick?
When Milos, a semi-retired male porn star, is recruited to be the lead actor in a new pornographic production from shady director Vukmir Vukmir, the actor is tempted to take on the role, as the financial reward will set himself, his wife and their young son up for life. Being a prominent figure in the porn industry, both literally and figuratively, he accepts the role. Yet, the only proviso is that Milos will not know what scenes he will be filming, who with, or the theme of the production as a whole: something that initially troubles him, but reluctantly agrees to forfeit, for the pay.
As he begins to record scenes for the slap-dash sex film, he soon comes to realise that what is being recorded is not to his tastes, as it involves violence and minors appearing in the scenes he appears in. Trying to break the contract, he is coerced into continuing, but things descend into true depravity, when he begins to get further and further into the script. Breaking free from Vukmir is going to be hard, especially if you are surrounded by hired thugs who are only too happy to compel you to comply with the director’s sadistic and brutal demands.
A SERBIAN FILM is not your usual kind of horror film. In fact, it’s quite tough to categorise the film as a movie full stop, due to its fractured narrative, relatively unknown cast, and taboo-busting sequences that will ensure almost no cinema ratings board let the public view it uncut.
At times, a melodrama focusing on one decision from the head of an everyday family; at others, a gruelling psychological chiller that batters the viewer into submission with material likely to turn many people off. Yet, we also have the film within a film concept. Neither wholly fictitious, nor 100% documentary, the movie transgresses genre and cinema styles in more ways than one, making it an extremely unique experience.
I’ll discuss the film’s controversy in a moment. It’s reasonably well acted, by the main cast, (Srdan Todorovic, Sergej Trifunovic, Jelena Gavrilovic, Katarina Zutic and Slobodan Mestic), and the photography acceptable, but watching the film in 2.35:1 didn’t seem to really utilise that much of the Cinemascope frame. There were many intimately-recorded domestic scenes, that would have been improved with the more commonly accepted 1.85:1 ratio instead, filling a 16:9 TV screen in full. In the theatrical environment, I also believe that the ‘Scope ratio works against - rather than with - the film. Yet, this is neither here nor there, because it’s the film’s ultra explicit content and subject matter that will be Spasojevic’s undoing. At first, the movie seems like a hybrid reworking of MAN BITES DOG and NEKROMANTIK, crossed with elements of GUINEA PIG II: FLOWER OF FLESH AND BLOOD and IRREVERSIBLE. As bizarre as it may sound, it is all of these, and yet none of them, all at the same time.
The tone of the film is bleak and almost non-judgemental, as there are no heroes to root for, nor villains to loathe. A SERBIAN FILM doesn’t even really fit into the horror genre either, as whilst there are several horrific elements, its main theme is more dramatic, and focussing on the rights and wrongs of our own moral values. In some aspects, you could say that Spasojevic is being both a lecturer and hypocrit at the same time. When John McNaughton unleashed HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1989) onto the world, after its initial four year delay, audiences accused him of being offensive. However, his intention was not to offend, but oppose the hypocrisy of the audience. Speaking to journalists back in 1990, when the accusation was made, he famously castigated his audience for having paid eight dollars to be entertained, only to then be offended at his cold, but non-sensationalistic depiction of murder. Is he the hypocrit for portraying violence as it should be, or the audience, for paying to be entertained by that same portrayal, yet being offended because of its realism, at the same time?
Similar echoes reverberate throughout Spasojevic’s film. Sadly, a defence of the film being based on a real individual, cannot be used in this wholly fictional film. The problem comes not with the realism of the violent material, but of the depiction of violence at all. If you think you’ve seen every type of on-screen barbarity from the numerous “heavy-hitters” of the Video Nasty age, or some of the more recent forms of global extreme cinema from Japan, France and the US, let me pre-warn you. To quote Al Jolsen, from THE JAZZ-SINGER, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”
Overall, the film’s violence quota isn’t that large, but... ...the violence that is shown, is truly degrading stuff, even creating a new subgenre of cinema, that I fear may become the new threshold in screen violence! A scene of rape then necrophilic sex, comes close to setting the limits of stomach-churning moments, but this is only after the infamous scene I’m about to mention.
The scene in question is likely to offend many, and even to my blog reader’s, many will be upset at what is shown. Unfortunately, there is no polite way to put it, if we are to discuss this sequence. With apologies therefore in advance, we are shown a sequence lasting around 30 seconds, which depicts the sodomy and/or rape of a newborn baby, freshly delivered from its mother’s womb, by a man in his mid-to-late 30’s who acts as the mother’s gynaecologist!
Nothing I’ve ever witnessed, comes close to being so utterly degrading, repellent and sickening, as this imagery! As certain as I am that this is the cleverest of SFX, you can be sure this scene will gain similar notoriety around the world, as that of the second GUINEA PIG film – a movie which Hollywood hot-shot Charlie Sheen spoke of to the FBI, because of his belief that the scenes were genuine.
Seeing a baby in distress or harm, in any horror movie scene, can be upsetting enough to many viewers, but this pretty much tears up the rule book, shits all over it, and then gleefully rubs it in your face in terms of your tolerance threshold! Even reading it, won’t prepare you for the sheer nausea-factor you will feel, as those 720-or so frames skip past your retinas and scar themselves forever more on your cerebral cortex! Thankfully, nothing comes close to the scene with the mother and baby, although after the first hour, there’s a strong 20 minutes or so of sadism that will appease gore fans, should you be so enamoured!
However, you may well have lost the will to live several minutes before that point, and be craving a very urgent viewing of BAMBI, THE CARE BEARS MOVIE, or something equally innocuous, to compensate for the squalor the film places you in. Even watching this film, in the afternoon, in total daylight, my mouth was agape at what I was witnessing! Bathing your brain in hydrochloric acid won’t remove the memory, so be prepared to switch off the film or exit the auditoria!
Ultimately, watch this film at your peril. Without some savage censorship cuts, this film is almost never likely to become available, in a legal format, because of the above content I’ve mentioned, let alone several scenes that show under-16’s involved in or viewing sexual acts, and hardcore scenes of sexual activity that are already X-rated within this adult storyline! I genuinely don’t think this can be called entertainment. In the UK and the USA, the uncut film will never legally see daylight, so don’t bother hoping it will! It’s not the violence that will cause a furore, but the sexual material with children in it, that will be its death-knell. Any festival screenings are going to really be pushing Obscenity laws with this one!
Some of you may have read that when the film was screened at a US film festival last month, that the director and writer tried to claim that it was a damning indictment of Serbian politics: of the state raping its citizens. On some levels, you could potentially read this into the fractured narrative. For my money, though, this is not what the film is about. It’s still really just a distasteful and unrepentant flick dealing with snuff and perverse sex in the porn industry.
You can YouTube the two-part Question And Answer session for this film, if you wish to see it being analysed in more detail, should you so desire. For this reviewer, though, I think this is a film that is for extreme minds and tastes only – and even then, under overt advisory! Like porn itself, you may find this title of interest, but to others, you will be seen as a bit of a sick individual, if you have this amongst your DVD collection. If you really must, you can download it online, but I’d heartily recommend that you don’t go looking for it, unless you really want to be cinematically chewed-up and spat-out afterwards! Part of me regrets seeking it out, even just to review it.
View the film once, then destroy all traces of it! You’ll thank me in the long run! Not a film I can recommend, but not a bad film by any means of the word either. Just... very, very grubby!
Addendum: The BBFC have since asked for 49 individual cuts, totalling just shy of four minutes to render it suitable for theatrical distribution here in the UK. The UK distributor, Revolver, have relented, and made these cuts, despite originally claiming they wouldn't do this. This same censored version is due out in January on UK DVD.