Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. While this review will do its best to not spoil the contents of the film, it must still be stated that this is not the movie best suited for all audiences. In fact, it is probably the exact opposite. Reader discretion is advised, and severe caution is considered for those considering a blind purchase.
Would it be inappropriate to start this review by saying that the lyrics to Nat King Cole's Unforgettable perfectly describe this film? Tonally, it may very well be the polar opposite, but the way just the thought of the film does things to you, whether you've seen it or not (due to the controversy surrounding it, you may already know more than you'd like), and the way the movie lingers with you, its imagery, dialogue, and particularly visuals...there's no better way to describe it, especially since there really is no easy way to do so. It's simply unforgettable.
'A Serbian Film' (aka 'Srpski Film') isn't controversial without reason. In fact, this is a film whose reputation precedes it, one where going in, you know you're in for one of the most disturbing films you'll ever see in your lifetime. There is no sugar coating, no cutaways (save for those done by censors themselves), no allusions to what may have just happened. This is visceral, graphic cinema, a powerful statement from first time writer/director Srdjan Spasojevic, who can be paraphrased as saying this film is his reply to his country's censorship laws, as well as the absolute power leaders have over their subjects.
To put this film in context, please consider the following: 'A Serbian Film' makes 'The Human Centipede' seem like family friendly fare. It has been banned from numerous festivals and/or countries, and is presented here in a cut version, due to the legalities of the original version of the film. This may very well be the absolute closest you will ever get to viewing a true to life snuff film. So, with this in mind, ask yourself a question: does an allegory grow exponentially more powerful through shock, or does shock grow through the power of allegory?
'A Serbian Film' will forever be questioned for its artistic merits, or what some see as a lack thereof. I'm not here to condemn this film. If anything, I'm here to champion it. I'll admit, I'm not as much interested in summer blockbuster fare as I am in films deemed vulgar or obscene. The views and opinions I have concerning this film most definitely will not be representative of the majority, and I don't mind that. When I see 'A Serbian Film,' I don't look at the film for its disturbing imagery, but for its storytelling ability, for its powerful visuals, even those that aren't violent, and for its excellent values that exceed what can be imagined for any first time filmmaker.
This is the tale of the clash between force and free will. Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) is a retired porn star, a confident and competent man who worked hard to provide for his loving wife (Jelena Gavrilovic) and young, impressionable child, yet is struggling due to his cash reserves depleting. A former friend from his past life (Katarina Zutic), a one time co-star who has gone on to star in more questionable fare, propositions him to make just one more film, this time with a supposedly visionary director (Sergej Trifunovic) making more artistic work than your ordinary skin flick. While the desire to continue that life is gone, Milos cannot pass up the massive sum being promised him, and soon discovers exactly why he wasn't told the plot or theme of the film he was to star in. There's no way to quit, and possibly no way to escape the deadly vision of Vukmir Vukmir.
'A Serbian Film' is an effective film for many reasons. First, while the dialogue can be a little bit forced in some sequences that cram its less-than-hidden meanings down your throat, there are so many working layers, with characters each embodying themes and actions doing the same, that its hard to not grasp what is really trying to be said. Characters represent embodiments of ideals. Milos and his family, the typical if not romanticized citizens. Marko (Slobodan Bestic), Milos' brother, the petty, impotent arm of the law, wrapped up in his own selfish affairs too much to act in the manner befitting his title. Lejla, temptation. Vukmir's guards, the oft-silent, anonymous arms of oppression. Vukmir himself, naturally, the director being the politician-like leader, pulling the wool over the eyes of the people, controlling their wills, promising them security.
The imagery is also beyond effective, with the littlest accents in a scene often bearing far deeper meanings, from the state of a cigarette to the violence not shown but clearly alluded to, its focus clearly representing the force those with power have over their subjects. Even the decor of young Petar's room shows the horrible state the country is in: a 'Transformers' poster? That's just uncalled for, those poor souls. 'A Serbian Film' is an unflattering comment on the lives being lived by the commoners, the growing unrest, the opinion that they're fucked from the moment they're born, and rather than sugar coat the despair, it gets its message across in an entirely different manner.
I have nothing but respect for this film, as it works on almost every single level. The music by Wikluh Sky, including possibly the greatest damned end credits song ever, amplifying the emotions of any given scene. The astonishing portrayal by Todorovic that carries any lesser performance. The constant state of unease from the moment the home for abandoned and orphaned children is shown (seriously, that is not the ideal place for a stag film...), which takes the characters we've learned in a short period of time and throws them to the salivating wolves. The manner in which the shocks continue to grow, the time we're given to recover from the more draining or perturbing sequences, the way the shots can seem to linger and truly capture the atmosphere and mood of the moment...this truly is a film to behold. This is not the film for everyone, and is probably best left ignored and untouched for the majority of filmgoers. This is a cinematic Pandora's Box, where what is seen cannot be unseen. A polarizing experience, a shocking analogy, a disturbing premise, a horrific blurring of lines between sex and violence, 'A Serbian Film' is proof that there are still unique, unheard voices with something to say, and that the art form of cinema will still see original works so long as they aren't suppressed.
Again, your discretion is advised. There is content here you may never see in cinema again. This film is genuinely one of a kind, for better or worse.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'A Serbian Film' arrived on Blu-ray earlier this year in the UK, with a slightly different version than the release that just bowed in America. This release, from Invincible Pictures, features a 1 hour 41 minute 57 second cut of the film, credits included, though the back of the package advertises it as 103 minutes. Please do not mistake the fact that the American disc is longer or a different cut as meaning it is the true director's vision, though, as some edits still remain, and due to legalities, some will always remain in many countries. Hey, it's better than the film being banned outright, as it was in Norway.
The disc itself is a BD25 with no pre-menu mumbo jumbo. The menu itself has two options: chapters and play. That's it. No setup, no extras. The original press release for this disc had it as a Blu-ray+DVD combo, which was not to be, as this is a Blu-ray with a Digital Copy paper. The packaging indicates region coding as Region 1. So...take that how you will.
So, what's the cutting about, and what are some of the major differences between releases? In the UK cut, a number of scenes containing sexuality had flashes to other material removed, the cuts showing what is going on in another part of the room clearly excised so as to draw a firmer line between the ideas of childhood and adulthood. In one sequence, there is a regular cut to what is on screen during a coital act, which is a monitor showing the random actions of the Jeca character, while another features the same coital act, and a video playing of Petar's birthday party. The penis-biting scene (yep...) is a little longer, while some other portions of violence are also slightly extended. The big change in this release compared to the UK import involves one of the two highly controversial scenes, with the shock reveal near the end of the film now passed over, left to the imagination, where it probably belongs. This does ruin some of the effect of the scene and what follows, but for those who are readily offended, this cut will definitely make this film much easier to cope with.
'A Serbian Film' arrives on Blu-ray here in the States with a 1080p transfer at 2.35:1 using the AVC MPEG-4 encode. The end result? A little bit less effective than the UK disc. In fact, of all the Red One filmed discs I've reviewed in the last few years, this one may be the lowest spot on the totem pole, even if it's a pretty darned awesome one.
On the bright side, the noise I noticed in the UK release didn't catch my eye at all here. Of course, the extreme sharpness didn't catch my eye, either. This disc still boasts sharp details in hair and flesh, the great depth and amazing textures, the glistening details pronounced with sweat or blood, and very rich black levels, but there are still issues. Particularly, the fact that Vukmir's beard sometimes looks like an undefined blob, or the way edges halo slightly or minor artifacts pop up here and there. The film's hot contrast isn't an issue, but the very random band and occasional motion blur-looking shot got to me after a while, while a few odd shots had very off skin tones.
This is still a good looking disc, I really need to stress that. It's just a step back from the UK disc, trading one set of issues for another.
This release of 'A Serbian Film' contains one audio option: Serbian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. No dubs, no subs, no 5.1. It's a little distressing, considering the UK release has a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, but it isn't end of the world here.
I noted some time back that I wasn't all that impressed with the surround use in the UK release, but I really enjoyed how much the score bled through the room. Well, that's one positive stricken from the record here. The music from Wikluh Sky is full of great subtleties and clarity, but it's lacking severely in the bass department, as the 2.0 doesn't hit the subwoofer at all, and does not attempt to get heavy out of the regular speakers. Of course, due to such, dialogue clarity this time around is much improved, and the amount of ambience on display in a number of scenes is really pretty darned awesome. This disc sports superb separation effects and great prioritization, but it is a little frustrating knowing when the film is trying to overpower you with the score and it just doesn't happen.
The subtitles themselves all locate inside the picture, without even a single drop or tip hitting the black area below the film, so constant height projector owners should be beyond happy. Also, the subtitles have a fun little twist with some nice shadow behind them, and the translation is improved over the UK disc, although some lines remain a little awkward.
The lone extra is a paper slip Digital Copy of the film. Because apparently some people want it to be known that they watch this film in public. I don't get it...that's just asking for trouble...
'A Serbian Film' is a tough watch, quite possibly one of the most shocking pieces of cinema ever compiled. All the shock aside, it is also a very well put together film, with some fantastic performances and A+ production values. If you have been let down by what gets passed off as a shock film these days, perhaps you may want to give this one a try. If you're readily offended, I really don't know why you've read this far into the review. The Invincible Pictures release of the Blu-ray is a step back from the UK import, and features a different cut, for better or worse.