Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Serbian Film (2010): Temper Tantrum as Critique

A Serbian Film (2010)
dir: Srdjan Spasojevic

When an artist throws a temper tantrum, sometimes the results can be amazing.  This is not that film.

A Serbian Film is a film created by a rich Serbian as a damning critique of the state of Serbian culture.  This isn't about the Balkan Wars, nor even allegorical for it, except to Western eyes trying to seek out some deeper meaning in a post-modern contextual manner.  If it is about the Balkan Wars, and the atrocities committed during the course of it, it is only in the most tangential of ways, in that they gave first-hand knowledge of the kind of horrors one human can commit against another.

Instead, A Serbian Film is a film directly commenting on the state of Serbian sociological culture in general, and film and arts culture in particular.  It is a film that is decrying the diminishing of Serbian cultures in order to fund and churn out art that is aimed directly at Western - read: American - audiences.  A Serbian Film is a torture porn film exaggerating what I call suffer porn.  

Suffer porn?  Huh?

Suffer porn is the genre of small foreign films which are all completely about somebody suffering at the hands of an evil culture or government, and either dying at the end or overcoming the atrocities.  It's all about emotional suffering under the guise that it teaches you something about the culture it is depicting.  The first time I noticed this was the American movie, Not Without My Daughter, which depicted the horrors of the Islamic culture against women, but was primarily about some woman who was suffering indignities in order to rescue her daughter.

The first link I selected from Wikipedia's Cinema of Serbia page under "Famous movies from Serbia", was When Father Was Away on Business, a story about a young boy trying to survive while his dad is sent to a labor camp, falls in love with a girl who is taken away by ambulance, and witnesses his father's mistress attempt suicide and his uncle is diagnosed with diabetes.  Life is a Miracle is about an engineer with a mentally unstable wife and a son who wants to play football, but is recruited for the Balkan wars...then the engineer falls in love with a Muslim hostage.  Every movie I've clicked on has been people suffering.

Which brings us back to A Serbian Film.  

A Serbian Film is about an aging porn star, Milos, with a huge "talent" that is married with a wife.  Milos, strapped for cash, gets one last well-paying gig, by a rich filmmaker, Vukmir, with Western interests, though Milos never hears what the film will entail.  

Milos' first shoot is at an abandoned orphanage, where he witnesses a mother physically and mentally abusing what looks like a fairly legal teenager.  Then, we get Milos' porn scene where he gets oral sex from the mother while watching the daughter lick a lollipop.  The scenes escalate from there, and include him physically abusing the mother, him killing the mother with a machete while having sex with her, him getting raped by a security guard, and more.  Yes, it's graphic, yes it tries for realism, and no it isn't sensational about any of it.  

At first, it is a straight-forward movie about one last gig, but by the end of the first hour, the movie firmly ensconces itself in Inland Empire territory, where things are half-remembered, half-dreamed, days are skipped, timelines go back and forth, and there is even video playback.  Basically, the film loses its mind with Milos, who goes crazier the longer he's involved with the movie.  

The movie is intended to shock.  The whole point of the movie is "I'm offended, why aren't you offended?"  It isn't a glib black comedy like Man Bites Dog or a facile torture porn movie like Hostel.  It isn't nearly as easily dismissable as either of those.  While the movie certainly does revel in the graphic depictions of gore, violence, sexual violence, sex, rape, and everything else, the movie is looking onto it with a bit of horror.  

And, I'd say its point was sledgehammer obvious, if I hadn't read so many opinions completely missing the point.  There are whole scenes where Milos is physically abusing women while the Westernized filmmaker is screaming "YES!  This is FILM!  This is ART!"  There are scenes where the filmmaker, even after being beaten, is saying how "this is TRUTH." There is a scene in the middle of the movie where a woman gives birth in a dark room, and a guy has sex with the newborn baby right out of the womb.  Milos storms out, disgusted, while the Vukmir is proudly proclaiming "NEWBORN PORN! NEWBORNS!"

On top of Spasojevic condemning the Westernization of Serbian film and culture, he is also condemning the government's participation of said film and culture.  *warning: spoilers and a description of the final scene* Milos' brother is a police officer who is ostensibly helping his brother out.  He promises to investigate Vukmir, and then tells his brother that Vukmir is a child psychologist with an interest in film.  You can trust him.  

The final scene has Milos being taken to a warehouse where he is told to have sex with a body that is laying under a sheet with a towel over its head.  And, then a masked man has sex with another covered body lying next to the first.  The masked man is uncovered, revealed to be his brother the cop, and then the bodies are revealed to be Milos' drugged son - with whom his is having sex - and his wife - with whom his brother is having sex.  This leads to a bloody blowout while the filmmaker is screaming this is TRUTH!  And encouraging the rampage, which includes a depiction of Milos penetrating the eye socket of the cinematographer.

Basically, Spasojevic is implying that the government (in the form of his brother) is very involved in the Western filmmakers' figurative raping and pillaging of Serbian culture, through financing, in order to find suffer porn for American audiences to feel bad about.  He wants the Serbs to have their own culture and their own film without having to kowtow to the needs of the wider global culture.  And, he laments that, because of the Serbian economy, that the Serbs cannot afford to have their own blossoming film industry independent of the West.

But, is the film good?

That question is not as easily answered.  Is a film good, if it shocks and it's intent is to shock?  Is a film that says "If you're not offended, you're not paying attention" successful if it offends the audience, possibly even beyond the point where they'll actually receive the message you're trying to send.  As I mentioned before, it is a temper tantrum of a film.  It's a primal scream parodying (not humorously) the suffer porn industry by turning it into torture porn.

One can pose the question as "is it art?"  But, that's almost like asking "Is Serrano's Immersion (Piss Christ) good?  Is it art?"  Is it valid if the point is missed?  What if the point is as explicit as one could possibly make it, and the point is still missed because you amped it way too loud, and people can't even understand it?  There is a whole scene where Milos is calling himself the victim, while everybody else suffers around him, kind of like the plot of When Father Was Away On Business, where the boy is there while everybody else suffers.  It can't possibly be any more direct without being a non-fiction essay.

So, that decision is up to you.

The one problem I have as a westerner, and as a human, is the sexual politics of the film.  The film is very brotastic in its mentality.  The biggest indignity that is suffered before the climax of the film is not Milos decapitating a woman while having sex with her.  It isn't the newborn porn, which actually almost has the humor of a dead baby joke.  It isn't teen rape, abuse, or any of the other indignities.  It is Milos getting raped, while drugged, by a security guard.  And, it is so offensive that we don't even get that in detail.  We only get a close-up of the security guards face close to Milos' face.

The women in A Serbian Film are violated the most often, the most graphically, and also are subjected to the majority of the graphic violence as well.  The one scene that is graphically depicted that isn't of a woman is the eye socket rape.  Everything else is violence against women.  One wonders if that is the point of the movie, and that was intended by the writer/director.  If the suffer porn frequently has women suffering around the male central character, and A Serbian Film just took that depiction to the extreme.  Or, if it really does have abominable sexual politics.  

In any case, A Serbian Film is not necessarily the evil that others make it out to be.  It is graphic, shocking, offensive, and it intends to be.  It isn't Chaos where it has nothing new to say about a topic.  It is moderately well filmed and made, even though I completely detested the Inland Empire style filmmaking of "is this reality, or is the main character going crazy?"  I feel that that was an attempt to lessen the blow of the violence, while still being able to keep it as depicted.  The pacing is decent.  But, the movie can even be quite dull.

So, is it good?  Is it bad?  Can it even be thought of that way?  

One thing it isn't, really, is dismissable.

American Availability: Uncensored on Youtube, Limited Edition Uncut DVD by Invincible Pictures, FlixFling, Censored DVD and Blu-Ray.

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