MAY 15, 2011
Seems like every few years there’s a movie that horror fans are almost sort of dared to watch; Faces Of Death, Henry, Martyrs... these are movies where the story and other merits of the film are overshadowed by a few key moments that “you hear” are the sickest or most hardcore thing ever shown in a regularly distributed film. And now A Serbian Film (aka Srpski Film) tops them all in that respect, as it dips in pretty much every taboo, offering just as much if not more sexual brutality than the sort of graphic violence you come to expect; a woman being realistically beheaded (i.e. not in a clean sweep like in Friday the 13th) is probably the least upsetting act of violence in the film.
Before I get into the film, let me get one thing out of the way – the NC-17 version that screened in LA (on 35mm! A nice surprise) had about four minutes edited. However, based on what I understand was cut, there is only one instance in the movie where I feel the editing lessened the dramatic impact of what was happening in the scene. The rest of the time, if anything, the cuts made the movie harsher, because it trimmed the violence down from potentially cartoonish levels into something more “normal”. Nothing from the story has been excised; the “newborn porn” scene that you’ve probably heard about is still there, you’re just spared the visual (you still hear the baby’s screams, and see the most disturbing aspect of it regardless of the editing: the mother’s smile as it occurs). I’m not a fan of censorship by any means (and I am baffled/somewhat amused at the notion of a film having to be edited down in order to get an NC-17), but I’m not a fan of seeing babies get raped either. If this was Irreversible and they wanted to cut out the entire rape scene, I would be outraged – the whole movie hinges on the act, and seeing the awfulness of it is what allows you to justify most of what you’ve already seen the hero do in retaliation. Basically, the movie doesn’t “hinge” on the baby rape scene anyway, but if you’re of the mindset that “only hearing” it happen means that you won’t see the movie, that’s your problem.
Anyway, I knew that going in. What I DIDN’T know is that the film was actually fairly legitimate, with a real plot, strong/interesting lead character, and even a bit of a unique mystery angle. It’s also shot incredibly well; I could have sworn it was film but I saw the Red logo in the end credits (which were in Serbian – I also saw the Kodak logo though, so I don’t know). It’s like, you hear about this crazy movie with baby rape and necrophilia, you don’t expect to be sitting in the theater marveling how great the color scheme was. Dug the electronic score, too.
Another surprise was how long it took for it to get to the awful stuff. For some reason I was under the impression that the movie was like Martyrs; a nearly non-stop endurance fest. But it takes its time, setting up our hero, his home life, how he knows the involved parties, why he would need to take this job in the first place, etc. And even once these things start to occur, again it’s not like you have to watch 45 straight minutes of sexual debauchery – it actually becomes kind of a mystery. After attempting to back out of the film, Milos is drugged, and wakes up 3-4 days later in a pool of blood. He then has to use the videotapes and his fragmented memory to piece together what transpired over those few days (the setup actually allows some fairly seamless editing; you’re always hearing everything, but they can cut away from what’s happening on the video to Milos’ horrified reaction and the audience will be none the wiser). I’ve mentioned before that I am sick of movies that start off with a guy not knowing where he was or what had happened over the past couple hours/days, but by structuring the story so that this occurs at the film’s halfway point or so, it allows us to invest in Milos’ story and thus have an emotional attachment to his plight; I wanted to see what happened to him just as much as he did, something I don’t feel for the characters in movies that start off with this predicament.
As for the acts of depravity, I don’t know if “unfortunately” is the right word but at any rate I pretty much had them all spoiled before going in, with the exception of the last few minutes’ worth. I don’t want to spoil anything but the final scene is the most upsetting part of the movie, a surprising mix of truly disturbing violence and genuine tragedy (slightly marred by a rather ridiculous final “stinger” – more on that later). And it’s what led up to it that the editing cost the movie some of its impact; you know exactly what has happened (it involves a particular character being raped while their face was covered), but by removing a shot of the cover coming off and letting us see who was under it, the moment of shock/disgust for both us in the audience and the other characters is severely blunted, I think. It would be like unmasking the killer at the end of a Scream movie and not showing us who it is, and then later saying “Man, I can’t believe it was Billy!” And since I’d argue that the later, unaltered scenes with this character are more upsetting than the quick shot of seeing them in that situation, the cut really doesn’t make a lot of sense to me (it’s also the only time that I could tell there was an edit).
Another oft-publicized aspect of the movie is that it’s supposedly a metaphor for how Serbian citizens are treated by their government (“The baby is us, our innocence taken away from us as soon as we enter the world!”), and while I am sure that is true, it doesn’t really have an in-film component to let non-Serbians in on that idea. The villain has a bit of a speech that hints at such concepts, but it’s hardly enough to really enforce the metaphor. I don’t need a history lesson in the middle of the movie, but I think when you’re dealing with such extreme atrocities, a little more context to justify them wouldn’t hurt. Romero always has social commentary built into his films, but you don’t need to fully understand those issues in order to enjoy them, because “zombies are awesome!” and thus you can just have fun. But Serbian Film is hardly “fun” to watch, and so unless you constantly keep the metaphor in mind (and/or do like I did and read a few interviews beforehand), it will just come across as a well-shot piece of trash. So if director Srdan Spasojevic thought that these metaphors would translate to a global audience, in that respect he has failed as a storyteller (if he was secretly trying to boost Wikipedia’s page hits, however...). And back to that stinger – the metaphorical idea is pretty clear, and possibly even justified, but it’s overkill on a figurative level AND a literal one.
And, obviously, I have to keep in mind that as a non-parent and a somewhat desensitized movie viewer, my idea of what is too far may be much more extreme than a parent whose harshest horror experience thus far was Saw II. I was drawn into the story and Milos’ tragic story with most of the violence eliciting no more than a raised eyebrow or “ew” face, but other folks may be too disgusted/turned off by those elements to recognize that at its core the movie is actually a compelling thriller.
Ultimately, you’re either going to see it or you’re not. It’s too notorious in the horror circle by this point, and thus I highly doubt anyone reading this site on a regular basis hadn’t yet at least heard of it. I just hope that if you have already made up your mind, you keep your damn mouth shut about the film’s lack of merit until you actually see it. I wouldn’t look down on anyone who opted not to see it because of the subject matter it contains, but I have zero tolerance for the types that hear about these things and automatically get on their soap box and claim that it’s “vile trash” or whatever without even bothering to watch it for themselves. As I said, it’s a technically impressive film and is certainly NOT just a series of awful violent scenes; there’s a legitimately compelling story here and a real lead character to root for/care about. I don’t know if I’d ever want to watch it again (at least, on its own; a commentary track would be very enticing), but ultimately, like it or not, A Serbian Film has more merit than at least half of the movies I’ve watched for HMAD.
What say you?