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Friday, 4 February 2011

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - A Serbian Film

Directed by: Srdjan Spasojevic
Produced by:
Dragolijub Vojnov
Srdjan Spasojevic
Written by:
Aleksander Radivojevic
Srdan Dragojevic
Marija Stanosevic
Srdan Todorovic
Sergej Trifunovic
Music by: Sky Wikluh
Cinematography by: Nemanja Jovanov
Editing by: Srdan Dragojevic
Studio: Contra Film
Distributed by: Invincible Pictures
Release date(s):
March 15, 2010 (United States: Festival/World Premiere)
June 11, 2010 (Serbia)
December 10, 2010 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 110 minutes
Country: Serbia
Language: Serbian

In my race to beat the Oscar race, I have resorted to watching films online in order to review films. Under normal circumstances, reviewing occurs in the cinema or on a large, widescreen television. However, as I am probably boring you to death constantly reminding you, this is my last week of reviewing, and so I am using the Internet. As someone who uses sites like YouTube anyway, and spends a lot of time using the Internet, I figured that it shouldn’t be much of a problem. Despite different formats, I think that a film has a universal understanding, regardless of whether you see it on the big screen or on your iPod (not my preferred choice: I tried and got eye strain. Saying that, One-Eyed Jacks as my tester probably didn’t help). Therefore, I conclude my feelings being down to the film being viewed, and not the format.

Today (and tomorrow’s)(and tomorrow’s) film for reviewing is A Serbian Film. It is become a film of significance due to the extreme nature of the violence that is presented onscreen. Although screenings in various countries have generated controversy, such as the midnight premiere in Austin, Texas for the 2010 South by Southwest festival, the film’s short but lively history is of particular note here in the UK. In the 1980s, the video nasty scare was abound, and rental stores and distributors were being legally convicted for selling so-called ‘nasties,’ such as The Evil Dead and The Last House On The Left. Cum 2009, there were whispers stirring around whether or not Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist should or shouldn’t be banned. The same argument has arisen for this film, although to a far greater extent.

Perhaps the reason that the whispers have spread as much is because it is a non-English language film, although believe me, word is spreading. I was recently talking to a friend in Lavery’s bar, and he queried as to whether or not I had seen the film. Clearly, if casual film fans as opposed to outright manic-obsessive folk like myself know about it, word is indeed spreading. It was due to be screened on August 29, 2010, for Film Four’s FrightFest in London. However, it was pulled from the festival by organizers following an intervention by Westminster Council, forcing distributors to have it screened for the BBFC. Following this submission, the BBFC cuts totaling four minutes and eleven seconds were requested, making it the most cut film since 1994’s Nammavar had five minutes and eight seconds removed. After brief consideration to resubmit the film, they decided that any cut version was not in the spirit of the festival, and replaced it with Buried. The Sun has declared the film “sick” and “vile”, and The Good Dr. Mark Kermode, noted fan of the horror genre, despised the film. Saying this, Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News listed it in his top 10 films of 2010, Scott Weinberg thinks it’s “actually quite intelligent,” and screenwriter Srdjan Spasojevic has publicly defended the film. He responded to the controversy, saying “this is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government.” Of course, this is all to put things into context, and so for sake of argument, I’ll be objective at the opening. Only now!

Here comes plot synopsis time, and just so you know, I am not making this up, and everything that follows is absolutely true (in the context of the film). Milos (Srdan Todorovic) is a retired porn star living the quiet life with his wife and son. His home life is happy, although his policeman brother Marko (Slobodan Bestic) is envious of him. Despite his happy life, he is financially strapped, and through Lejla (Katarina Zutic), a former co-star, he takes his last, and well-paid job, for Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic). Milos signs on to the job under the pretense that Vukmir is directing ‘artistic pornography’, although finds out that he has been led into participating in snuff films.

Now, the film does certainly have one thing to its credit and that is the make-up. Regardless of how you feel on the subject matter, you have to admit that the depiction of these horrible scenes is done is a believable manner. Even in the depths of extreme absurdity in the images, you do believe in them. This is not just cinematic trickery to cover up the gaps in the make-up. Also, there is a scene that is particularly horrible and disgusting. There is some terrifying imagery in the film, and despite this idea (which I won’t give away) being deplorable, it does the job that a horror film is meant to. Finally, I rather admire the fact that the final five/ten minutes linger on the consequences of this violence, and at least attempt to give it some meaning. Saying that, the final minute/thirty seconds ruin the effect of this ending, a typical horror copout ending that ends but doesn’t really bring things to a conclusion.

This brings me to my problems on the film, and believe me, there are many. To start with the usual, the script is horrible. Outside of the graphic scenes of violence, the other scenes are merely written around them. They do not quite seem to fit into the jigsaw puzzle that is a full and proper film. These scenes are basic, right-down-the-middle, and just plain boring. The lines of dialogue are so atypical and nuts-and-bolts that it could be a parody of horror movies, except that this one that takes things too seriously, when what the filmmakers need to do is get a sense of humour. It takes itself so seriously and believes in the power of the graphic scenes so much that they seem to forget about the other elements. Despite the film reaching new heights for film violence, it was for the most part very predictable. There is predictability in being unpredictable, for your wildest expectations are usually going to be fulfilled. Also, these scenes go on and on and on, and do not fulfill the artistic pretense of ‘lingering on the horror of violence’ but rather dull you. They never seem to end, and are generally more boring than nauseating.

Regarding the predictability of the film, it seems to infect virtually every aspect of the filmmaking process. The acting, while not being bad, is cardboard cutout and nothing we haven’t seen before. Todorovic does the atypical protagonist, and while delivering an oddly charismatic performance as a villain who resembles George Michael, Trifunovic revels and bathes in the absurdity of performance (and not in a good way). This is what we come to expect from our mad villains, so why not go somewhere different. Also, the editing and cinematography do exactly what we expect them to. Cue fast cuts from close-up of lead grimacing to wide shot of him ‘doing something’, cut to different camera position of same ‘doing something’ etcetera etcetera. Also, despite being ‘a Serbian film’, somehow Sky Wikluh compositions manage to sound like those in every American horror movie. Things go quiet, things build up, we see a horrifying image, loud banging on whatever instrument you have, sustaining the note for effect. It is, for all intents and purposes, despite new frills, a nuts-and-bolts horror film.

Now, here comes the big discussion. There is no way one can review A Serbian Film without the violence being a large part of it. The filmmakers have a firm belief that the reasons for the explicit violence in the film are in the context of criticizing their government. Sure, that’s fine, but the problem with the violence is that any metaphors or allegories ultimately get drowned in the ever-increasing wave of violence. Furthermore, although depicted realistically, the violence is so over-the-top that on occasion it becomes unintentionally funny. As mentioned, this is a film that takes itself too seriously, and if it was a satire it might work, but here it does not work. As a result, the film comes across as crass, silly and exploitative. It really is for me in the same category of ‘trash’ such as my (not so) favourite New York Ripper. ‘Trash’ is a category of work that contains some really dirty, filthy stuff. Whether or not the work is good is another matter. Irvine Welsh has made a living out of ‘trash’ works because despite some extreme situations, he has always had a reason to use the violence, sex, drugs etc. Trashy films need not necessarily be bad films, just look at The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. However, the filmmakers (director Srdjan Spasojevic the prime offender) display a poor awareness in not realising how stupid their film is. There is a blind pretension in walking your film around as a political film, considering that it is essentially a pure exploitation film. At least with Hostel, a film I didn’t like, Eli Roth didn’t dress it up as more than it was. Now, I know nothing about the socio-political machinations of Serbia, but Alison Willmore makes a brilliant point when writing that “it has as much to say about its country of origin as Hostel does about America, which a little, but nothing on the scale its title suggests.” Interestingly, in a normal film the ‘serious film pretensions’ would have been on the surface, but the rule of thumb is reverse, with such excessive ridiculousness.

A Serbian Film is a film with some terrifying imagery to its credit. There is a whole scene that would have been an Internet phenomenon if released as a fake snuff film. This about sums up A Serbian Film. There is enough to release a few Internet fake snuff films, which is where these ideas really belong. However, the film suffers in drowning out any socio-political meanings in blood, the violence throwing up over the borderline of ridiculous. The ending, which goes pretty well until the last thirty seconds is the prime example I know this is a thing of personal temperament, but if I wanted cumshots, I would have watched any number of porn films. If you want to study how to use film violence of absurd levels yet inject it with some meaning, watch Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. Unlike that film, this takes itself way too seriously, and ultimately says less about Serbia than it should. Ultimately though, the great condemnation is the fact that below the deep surface of raining blood, the film suffers from the worst problems of any other film. It is predictable in all aspects, dull, very boring and with the violence on top, crass.

The Thin White Dude’s Prognosis – 3.0/10

The Thin White Dude’s Self-Diagnosis – Numb and indifferent to this film (bar the one scene, which it has to be said has haunted me)

P.S. Watch Takashi Miike’s Audition. As someone who is a fan of psychosexuality in thrillers, I thought A Serbian Film was the most brash, unsubtle depiction of it I have ever seen. Bar none.

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