On The Circuit: ‘A Serbian Film’ represents the absolute darkest heart of cinema

04.05.10 9 years ago 12 Comments

If you were anywhere within earshot of me during SXSW, then you already have some idea of just how enthusiastic I was about a screening that happened early in the festival, a screening that may turn out to be one of my few chances to see this audacious debut on the bigscreen.

However, it’s precisely because the film hit me so hard that I found myself unable to quite put it all into words during the festival.  It’s taken me until now to get my head around it completely so I could somehow write a review that wouldn’t just be ranting and raving.  So what is “A Serbian Film”?  Hmmmm…

“This is a new genre, Milos!”

— Vukmir Vukmir, “A Serbian Film”

On one level, “A Serbian Film” is the movie that Brian De Palma and Dario Argento teamed up to make in 1987, and it works as a dark, inhuman thriller in which a family man’s tainted past catches up with him and threatens the happy life he’s built for himself.  It is the story of one generation’s crimes becoming a younger generation’s punishments.  But even before any of that, it is a hysterical cry for help, a cultural declaration of surrender that I found emotionally devastating.

Here’s what I believe.  Anyone who is writing seriously about the current culture of cinema should be required to review “A Serbian Film.”  I think it’s a significant litmus test.  It is a challenge, no doubt about it.  When Tim League introduced the film and said it actually disturbed him when I watched it, I took that as fun but empty hype.  Tim League has seen more onscreen depravity than would seem possible in the span of one human lifetime, so for him to preface a film with a warning that this even tested his threshold seemed too William Castle for me to believe.

I should have listened.

I should have believed.

“That’s it, Milos! That’s the cinema!”

— Vukmir Vukmir, “A Serbian Film”

The film introduces one of its dozen themes in the opening scene, where Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) and his wife (Jelena Gavrilovic) return home to find their nine-year-old son watching a hardcore porn film.  Even worse, it’s a film that stars Milos.  He’s retired, supposedly, but he’s running low on his reserves of cash, and he’s starting to think about a return to the business.  When he’s approached by Lejla (Katarina Zutic), an actress he worked with in the glory days, she’s got a mysterious offer he has a hard time turning down.  She knows someone who wants to make a piece of political pornography, and they want Milos to star in it.  She plays to his vanity first, then plays to his insecurity, finally hooking him.  He agrees to meet the director of the film, Vukmir Vukmir, and that meeting is the start of a chain reaction avalanche, like a rollercoaster with a track that only goes down.

Vukmir Vukmir is this movie’s Satan, the ruiner, constantly seducing Milos down the road to a self-made Hell.  It’s a great role, and (Sergej Trifunovic) tears it up.  He’s gleeful because he genuinely believe in his artistic mission.  He’s doing something significant.  He’s saving Serbia with depravity.  The way Vukmir shoots the film, there’s no script, no warning ahead of time about what he’s going to ask Milos to do.  Vukmir is invisible, speaking to him by earpiece, and everything plays out for real.  Whatever Milos does, it’s real.  And it’s disturbing to see the way Milos is lured down the rabbit hole, the way his moral compass is reset to a new north each day.  The pace and energy of the filmmaking is very precise, controlled, with a scary command of film language.  It’s fitting.  You can’t make a film about a brilliant but disturbed filmmaker and make it truly effective unless you make a slick and truly depraved movie.  You can’t make a genuinely shocking film about pornography without showing images that are, by definition, pornographic.

And therein lies the rub.

“At least your dick liked it… and he never lies.”

— Vukmir Vukmir, “A Serbian Film”

This is that rare film in that it never flinches.  Once the film starts, it never once shies away from the ideas or the imagery that it introduces.  As a result, you find yourself in moments in the film where you start to worry that you’re about to see something so awful that you’ll be changed by it, and then after they show you what you were afraid of, they show you something worse.  Most films that flirt with darkness do exactly that:  they flirt.  They tease.  They are never quite as horrifying as you think they’ll be.   The screenplay that Aleksandar Radivojevic and Srdjan Spasojevic wrote together is a catalog of the darkest corners of the human heart, and they’re young enough that they’ve got the same sort of crazy pent-up film nerd energy that early Tarantino had.  That kind of command of language.  Spasojevic is the director of the film, and I’m not making a cursory comparison when I mention De Palma or Argento or early Carpenter.  The film is shot is gorgeous 2.35:1 scope, using the Red camera, and if I didn’t know that, I might think I was looking at old ’70s stock 35mm.  It’s that lush and visually impressive.  It is an incredibly angry film, and there are some dark laughs so dark that they just sort of take your breath away.  It’s a tricky structure, because for the first hour, it’s all build-up.  It’s the seduction, as Vukmir Vukmir shoots the first three or four days in his film, culminating in a moment that Milos finds repulsive, degrading, over a line he didn’t even realize he needed to define.

Then Vukmir Vukmir levels with Milos.  He lays bare his whole philosophy.  He explains who he really is, what he’s really shooting.  He still doesn’t lay out specifics, but he defines the borders of the game, and the borders are non-existent.  He goes so far that something happens onscreen, graphically, in your face, without any cutting away or relief of tension or horror that I guarantee… no matter what rough or dangerous films you’ve ever seen before, you will see something you have not seen.  You will see it and you will hear it.  And it is goddamn awful.

And from that point, you might think, “That’s it.  Whatever else they show me, that’s the line.  They went further than anyone ever, and there’s nothing else they can do that’s going to go further.”

And you would be wrong.

“Victim sells.”

— Vukmir Vukmir, “A Serbian Film”

In the second hour, time is no longer linear.  Milos wakes up in bed, smeared in blood and filth, and he’s lost three days.  There are only a few clues to follow, but each one is going to lead him to remember a little more of what he’s done and what’s been done to him.  And while the image I described above is a nightmarish image for any audience, a generally unimaginable horror, what happens in the second hour is personal to Milos.  He’s taken on a ride into his own life, where all the simmering tensions between him and his wife and their son and his brother all spill over and drown him.  Vukmir Vukmir directs Milos through three of the worst days possible.  The film just punches and punches and punches.

Talking to Tim League and Rodney Perkins of Fantastic Fest after the screening, it was obvious that they really wrestled with whether or not to program the movie.  They made the right choice.  This summer, Mitch Davis is going to be showing the film at FanTasia in Montreal, and I would argue that it is one of the most important dates on the festival calendar for North American critics.  If you haven’t seen the film, get to Montreal and see it because I don’t know when or if it will play here again.  I seriously challenge every working critic who reads this to see the film, and to only see it theatrically.  Do not watch a screener.  Do not watch it in a setting you control.  You have to be willing to lock yourself in a room with this movie and a crowd of total strangers.  That’s part of what is so terrifying about it.  You know you’re not supposed to say or do or think any of what Vukmir Vukmir does or puts Milos through, but you also know that other people do think this way, and those people could be sitting around you reacting to what they’re watching in a much more disturbing way.  It’s scary because you realize that this is the way these filmmakers are saying it feels to be Serbian.  Pardon my language, but in Serbia, you are f**ked from birth, you are f**ked until you die, and then, no doubt, you will be f**ked some more.  That’s the simple truth of this movie, and until you live it, you don’t realize just how jet black a view of life that really is.

It’s about victimization and humliation, and how it’s an industry that certain regions of the world export for the consumption of other regions of the world.  In Serbia, they don’t see themselves contributing or leading or competing.  They see only one role for themselves and their countrymen… as victims to be sold to people sitting in comfort somewhere, watching the suffering so they can feel better about their own lives.  The film asks if you can truly have a pornographic industry without creating a victim economy, which is a HUGE thing for a film like this to tackle.  The pornographic is everywhere, they argue.  It’s inconveniently convenient at this point.  From the opening scene to the final images, there is blatant sexual imagery in almost every single frame of the film, in every corner of the culture it presents.  Even as they’re driving Milos to an unnamed destination, drugged and crazy and ready to kill him, they drive by billboards that he can see from the floorboards of the back seat, and on the billboards, half-naked women beckon and bend.  They cast the film with truly stunning Eastern Bloc beauties in every single female role.  It’s alarming how beautiful the cast is, and that’s no accident.  It’s the cartoon of what the West imagines when we think of women in the former Soviet states.

“Welcome to a warm family home.”

— Vukmir Vukmir, “A Serbian Film”

The lead performance by Todorovic is intense and incredible, an Old Testament Job for the porn age, and he really is the thing that makes it all work.  He has to be fearless as a performer.  We hear that in connection to things like Reese Witherspoon movies here, but allow me to laugh.  There is very little in American cinema that actors are asked to do that is genuinely terrifying.  This guy has a substantial career in Serbia.  I mean, come on… this is the star of “Strawberries In The Supermarket,” “The Red Colored Grey Truck,” and the entire “We Are Not Angels” series including “We Are Not Angels 3: Rock & Roll Strike Back,” for god’s sake.  He was described to me by the filmmakers as “the Serbian Kevin Bacon.”  I’m trying to imagine Kevin Bacon doing what Todorovic does here.  It’s not working.

Here’s how much “A Serbian Film” affected me.  We saw it at midnight on the Sunday night of SXSW this year, at the Alamo South Lamar location, and it was a rowdy, energetic screening.  Before the film screened, Tim League asked several of us up onstage to do “Extreme Tequila Shots.”  That means you snort the line of salt, you drink the shot of tequila, and you squeeze the lime right onto your eyeball.  I was involved.  There is photographic proof of this bouncing around Facebook now.  It hurt like I can’t even describe.  That feeling is what the film did to every single person in that room.  Outside afterwards, it was like comparing notes on a crime that had been committed right in front of us.  One person, Scott Weinberg, couldn’t make the screening, but as he heard everyone talking about it, he realized he needed to see it that night to review it.  He managed to procure the festival’s official screener of the film, and needed a place to see it.  An Austin friend, Luke Mullen, who saw the screening with me, offered to let Scott and I watch the film on a portable DVD player in his truck so we wouldn’t wake anyone.  I sat through it a second time, making notes about specific things, and even screening it like that, I was totally absorbed in it.  The power of what they’ve made is just amazing.  Love it or hate it, you cannot deny that it’s an experience, and a reminder of just how dangerous film can be in the right hands.

On the first Motion/Captured podcast this week, you’ll be able to hear me interview Tim League, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse and programmer of Fantastic Fest, along with the writer and the director of “A Serbian Film” as well as Simon Rumley and Amanda Fuller, whose “Red White And Blue” I’ll also be reviewing this week.  It’s a pretty great roundtable, and was probably the high point of the festival for me.

First, though, some DVD reviews tonight.  Be back with those soon.


Can’t get enough of Motion/Captured? Don’t miss a post with daily HitFix Blog Alerts. Sign up now.

Don’t miss out. Add Motion/Captured to your iGoogle, My Yahoo or My MSN experience by clicking here.

Not part of the HitFix Nation yet? Take 90 seconds and sign up today.

You can e-mail me at drew@hitfix.com or follow me on Twitter, where I’m DrewAtHitFix.

Around The Web