If you’ve been clicking around the internet lately, there is good chance that you have at least heard of A Serbian Film. Primed to be the next Antichrist or Cannibal Holocaust, this film has been described as the most ungodly, violating piece of work to ever splat onto the silver screen. Forget the psychological tortures of Saw or the bloody violence of Hostel, A Serbian Film blows them all away with the harrowing story of a former porn star who is drawn into an abyss of debauchery, incest and necrophilia.
The graphic violence of Milos’ journey has troubled critics. Most people who have watched the film wish they hadn’t, including reviewer Tim Anderson (Tex Massacre) of BloodyDisgusting.com who, despite heavy preparation, still had his soul raped. Tim even gave the film a one skull rating so as not to give the casual viewer the wrong idea to seek out this monstrosity. He ends with the caution: “You don't want to see A Serbian Film. You just think you do.”
Those in the latter camp are given a voice by critic Alison Willmore. While she admits "movies can use transgressive topics and imagery toward great artistic resonance,” A Serbian Film is not one of those movies, going more for “pure shock/novelty/boundary-pushing” value.
So where does my evaluation of A Serbian Film lie? Not having seen the film firsthand and gathering what I can from trailers, reviews and articles, I fall somewhere in the neighborhood of Scott Weinberg’s estimation. My defense of this film does not mean I endorse its content and no one should read this as a promotion of newborn rape, necrophilia or incest. That being said, I do think the film has such a negative impact on its viewers because of the aforementioned things it throws up on the screen, which makes it hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, if there even is one. Ever the cautious optimist, I believe there may be.
There are plenty of criticisms to be made about this film and reviewers, online and off, have made them in spades. Some reviews slam A Serbian Film for failing to say anything intelligent about porn or violence. Writer/director Srđan Spasojević justifies the film as a representation of the molestation of the Serbian people by their government. Jeff Allard of Dinner with Max Jenke finds this “a pretty thin justification for depicting the rape of a newborn baby” Though I agree with Jeff to some extent, the same premise was used for other legendary horror films like Last House on the Left, a shocker in its day that expressed homicidal frustration with government abuses and the Vietnam War.
In addition to its motivation, the film has also come under fire for its plot. Calum Waddell of TotalScifiOnline.com calls it “a feature so stupid that we're asked to believe a snuff baron would leave his master tapes with a (still living) victim,” referencing Milos' search for the truth after he wakes up from a drug induced daze—bruised, battered and with no memory of what he has done over the past three days. I’ll be the first to admit that Waddell’s critique is valid if we are looking at the film as a straightforward depiction of real atrocities. But this isn’t a shock doc, it’s a horror film. The structure of the film itself defies any sort of unified message about victimization and the porn industry and should be read instead as a trauma narrative.
Trauma is a wounding, psychological and physical. Though physical wounds can heal, the psychological wounds can last for years. Writer Charles Dickens underwent such a trauma. In 1865 he had a near death railway accident, but escaped without physical harm. The psychological effects were far more persistent. He lost his voice for two weeks, drifted into trances and "would fall into a paroxysm of fear, tremble all over and clutch the arms of the railway carriage." This last symptom represents an uncanny repetition of his trauma years earlier as he nearly fell to his death.
Milos’ traumatic tale hits all these notes and more. He cannot remember his trauma and must use outside sources to verify it in the form of Vukmir’s video tapes. Milos’s struggle to remember is reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s protagonists who have committed horrible crimes yet don’t remember theses atrocities (i.e. Berenice, when the narrator plucks out all of his beloved’s teeth thinking she is dead). Milos also repeats his trauma and the end leaves no escape from an endless cycle of trauma—a powerful commentary for a nation that has been victimized repeatedly by its government.
In this sense the film seems to have been more than effective in communicating an incommunicable trauma. Peter Hall of Horror’s Not Dead sums it up quite nicely: “Perhaps you’re not supposed to “get” A SERBIAN FILM, you’re supposed to just be taken over by it… I certainly felt like I had been fucked by the time it was over.
And who knows, maybe in a few months I’ll be back here railing about the horrible injustices this movie portrays and how it has no redeeming value whatsoever. Maybe, but for now I remain hopeful that this film will have more value than “that one movie where (insert horrible crimes against humanity here) happened”
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