A Serbian Film: Is this the nastiest film ever made?

With its mix of pornography and ultra-violence, A Serbian Film is genuinely disturbing, but it offers more than just shock value, says Geoffrey Macnab

At the American Film Market (AFM) this week in Santa Monica, there have been plenty of movies using shock tactics to attract the attention of the world's distributors. But gnarled old distributors and blasé film festival programmers alike seemed genuinely shocked by Srdjan Spasojevic's ultra-extreme thriller called A Serbian Film.

A Serbian Film is about retired porn star Milos (Srdjan Todorovic), a middle-aged man struggling to provide for his family who is lured back into the industry for one last film. He has been offered enough money to set him up for life but, in return, has signed a Faustian pact with the director Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic). Milos will have no control over the scenes in which he appears.

The opening sequences shows Milos's young son innocently watching some of his father's greatest "hits" on the family TV. We see the doe-eyed kid looking innocently as Milos struts his stuff in some ludicrous Robin Askwith-style blue movies. The parents are shocked to discover that he has stumbled on such images and quickly turn it off. The scene is disorienting but also comic. It highlights the preposterousness of the world from which Milos has fled.

Gradually the film begins to darken. Once Milos accepts the role in Vukmir's film, the demands placed on him grow ever more extreme.

Publicists whispered to journalists that the film was truly "vile". Prior to its AFM screenings, the movie had already been yanked out of Frightfest in London when Westminster Council ruled it couldn't be shown in its uncut form and had started frenzied debates about censorship and freedom of speech. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) had asked for a staggering number of cuts in the film and for a full four minutes of footage to be excised in order for it to qualify for an 18 certificate.

Not since the heyday of the so-called "video nasties" in the early Eighties had a movie exercised the censors in quite such an extreme way.

Much of the imagery in A Serbian Film is indeed quite repellent. That, though, is not the same as saying that it is a repellent film. The film-making is stylised and self-conscious. The most notorious scenes (the rape of the new-born baby, the scene in which the star decapitates a woman and continues to have sex with her headless torso) are grotesque but very obviously contrived. In the film-within-a-film, Vukmir, the psychiatrist-turned-porn director, may be striving for the ultimate realism but Spasojevic heightens the absurdity. Forty years after A Clockwork Orange, audiences are surely too used to these kind of shock tactics to be affected by them – or so we might think. There is a knowing irony. As in Michael Haneke's films, the director seems to be challenging the audience to question their own voyeuristic instincts. As in Peter Greenaway's The Baby of Macôn, he is using extreme imagery for polemical purposes.

The problem is that the storytelling grows ever more intense. What begins as a self-reflexive formal exercise veers off in another direction altogether.

One US distributor fainted as he tried to leave a screening of A Serbian Film earlier this year, hit his head on the door and ended up needing stitches. The film's British sales agent was left hurriedly trying to clear up the pool of blood.

"He was getting really disturbed and he felt he was going to faint. At the time, we were both sitting on the floor because the theatre was completely full. He tapped me on the shoulder and said I need to go. He got up and ended up fainting and collapsing," recalls Thomas Ashley, the boss off Invincible Films, the US distributor for which the man worked.

What has proved alarming to censors isn't just the imagery. It's the fact that children are involved. Spasojevic clearly didn't expose these children directly to images of torture, rape and death. However, the juxtaposition of children with such exploitative imagery is itself deeply unsettling.



There is a feeling of nihilistic self-loathing that runs through the film. In some eyes, after the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Serbia is still a pariah state. The alleged war criminal General Mladic has never been arrested. The memory of Slobodan Milosevic hasn't been exorcised. Films like A Serbian Film and another equally extreme Serbian movie The Life and Death of a Porno Gang play on Western preconceptions about the country and can't help but reinforce them. The very title of A Serbian Film suggests that the director and his screenwriter Aleksander Radivojevic are making an allegory about their troubled and isolated homeland. The screenplay is full of references to the corruption and squalor of family life in the country. However, audiences have been responding to it in stubbornly literal fashion and haven't been slow to express their utter disgust.

Predictably, this disgust is now being harnessed to boost the film's profile in the marketplace. The film's British sales agent Jinga was quick to tell the press that following its withdrawal from Frightfest, A Serbian Film has been banned in Spain and withdrawn from three Spanish festivals – San Sebastián, Molins de Rei and FanCine Málaga.

As with any film that becomes a succès de scandale, A Serbian Film's notoriety risks stopping it from being judged on its merits. Even its fiercest critics concede that it's a film with a relentless narrative drive. The porn star is played with an unlikely crumpled charm by Srdjan Todorovic (a musician and veteran of Emir Kusturica's films.) He is (at least initially) a sympathetic figure: someone desperate to do the best for his family.

Invincible's Thomas Ashley, who ended up buying the movie for the US in spite of his colleague's fainting fit, captures well the strange mix of revulsion and admiration that it has been eliciting.

"Shocking and disturbing as it is, this is really a well-made film," he declares. "Everything that happens in the movie happens for a purpose, to get you to the next part of the story.... I've seen a lot of horror movies and a lot of exploitation movies and I've never had a movie affect me the way this film did."

In a market like this year's AFM, full of anaemic vampire movies pastiching Twilight and of "torture porn" of the Hostel or Saw variety, A Serbian Film can't help but stick out. It has a craftsmanship that these films lack. Its UK distributor Justin Marciano of Revolver believes it can find an audience among "intelligent fans of horror".

The movie will soon surface in some form (almost certainly in the cut version) in Britain before Christmas. When it does so, some are bound to condemn it as being beneath contempt. What A Serbian Film underlines, though, is that some pictures can still get under audiences' and censors' skins. If this was just another bad and grotesque horror film, nobody would be paying any attention to it. The fact that it has already provoked such ferocious debate suggests that it can't be dismissed that easily.



'A Serbian Film' will be released on 10 December

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'