Imagine you're a car mechanic and you're tasked with fixing a car made entirely of body parts. Or pretend you're a doctor who is faced with a shocking, violent disease that nobody's ever seen before. Now here's me: a (very) horror-friendly film critic who is asked to review a film that's so shocking, so outrageous, and so legitimately disturbing that it boggles the mind. Yes, even the mind of a trained writer who's seen and reviewed thousands of horror films. And while I generally detest the employment of superlatives within my film reviews, I feel I can state, without fear of contradiction, that A Serbian Film is one of the most disgusting, unpleasant, and ANGRY films I've ever seen.
And if you think I mean that as a knock against the film, well then keep on reading.
On the surface, here's the deal: We open with a nine-year-old boy who is watching a pornographic film. We quickly discover that the film is one of his father's tapes. As in, his father is the star of the porno. Yikes. Mom and Dad show up, yank the cassette out of the player, and point the child toward the decidedly more appropriate activity of singing. But little Peter isn't all that great of a singer, which is why Mama asks her husband, Milos, for some money.
This simple request offers a clear indication that the family is short on cash, which means it's time for Milos to reluctantly return to the world of hardcore porn. Only ... in Serbia, the word "hardcore" doesn't mean what it used to. Without getting too vile, let's just say that Milos' new director has a rather ... extreme ... view of the porno biz. His films are less about the pleasures of human sexuality, and more about the exploitation, the degradation, and the ceaseless victimization of the human animal.
But then ... everything I've just described is merely the surface layer of A Serbian Film, and it's probably the least fascinating. So while it's true that a large portion of disturbing porn oozes out of Eastern European countries these days, and that it's a darkly compelling story to tell, I'd say A Serbian Film is actually "about" a group of angry young filmmakers whose country has been beaten and battered virtually beyond repair. I'd venture to say that A Serbian Film could only come from a group of people who've lived through some stunningly painful experiences, and are now dead-set on throwing their collective fury on to a movie screen.
"You watched it! You can't UN-WATCH it!" is a rather amusing line that I discovered in an episode of Futurama, and it's one I love to yell immediately after seeing a film that has somehow scarred itself onto your brain. A Serbian Film not only fits that description; it's actually "about" the inability to "un-watch" something horrendous. The film posits the belief that once your eyes and your brain are pummeled with visions both horrific and inhumane, that you're never really the same. The creators of A Serbian Film have seen such things first-hand, and their film seems aggressively intent on delivering some moments that, indeed, you will never forget. Even if you want to.
It's a Haneke-style trick being played on the audience, in a way, because as we watch Milos struggle through a series of monumentally disturbing misadventures, the flick actually DOES toss a few unforgettable horrors at the screen. To catalog such events would be a grave disservice to A Serbian Film, as this is in no way a "fun-time" horror flick, nor are the "nasty bits" anything close to fun. One gets the clear impression that the sickest moments are meant to judge an audience's willingness to leap into the truly vile and nihilistic side of the swimming pool -- but as a seasoned genrevore, I was stunned, shocked, and actually rather impressed. This is truly a film that pulls no punches, for better or for worse.
Practically unreleasable in its current state, A Serbian Film feels like a giant, screaming exclamation point of a film -- from a nation that rarely produces films at all. I think the film is tragic, sickening, disturbing, twisted, absurd, infuriated, and actually quite intelligent. There are those who will be unable (or unwilling) to decipher even the most basic of "messages": buried within A Serbian Film, but I believe it's one of the most legitimately fascinating films I've ever seen. I admire and detest it at the same time.
And I will never watch it again. Ever.