A Serbian Film opens with a scene that effectively sets up one of the main recurring themes in the film and also gives the audience a small taste of the uncomfortable and increasingly horrified feeling they are going to experience throughout the 100 minute running time. The film opens on a porn scene which a young boy is watching on video and into the room walks the star of the scene which happens to be the small boy’s father, Milos (Srdjan Todorovic). This uncomfortable but almost amusing Solondz-esque scene foreshadows a lot of the more disturbing scenes later in the film as the it becomes far more disturbing and horrific with scenes that mix children and sex in increasingly shocking ways.

Milos at this point is struggling. Having quit his somewhat lucrative career in the porn industry he does not have the money to support his wife and son but with the offer of ‘one last job’ from an eccentric director (Vukmir) Milos decides to make another film. The way Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic) approaches directing this film within the film is a little strange with Milos being given an earpiece which the director uses to instruct him and the camera crew filming him in a documentary style. The director’s approach to the content of the film is even stranger, you could say demented and psychotic even rather than strange. Simply listing these bizarre, depraved and disgusting scenes would be a disservice to the film and I’ll leave that to the BBFC, who if they attempt to certificate this film will have a very hard job on their hands, instead I think it’s important to discuss the film rather than just the describe the most shocking scenes.

It is difficult to discuss and articulate the disturbing elements in A Serbian Film without just exclaiming “This film is messed up!”. It is, trust me, IT IS but there is intellect and thought behind these shocking scenes and this is something that will undoubtedly get lost in the controversy that surrounds the film. I’m not suggesting that the film is anything like an artistic masterpiece or that the controversy is unjustified or not actually part of what makes the film work but it is not all there is to it. That said, almost as a public service announcement I’d like to point out that this film is probably the most disturbing film I have seen in a long time and there are scenes that have lingered in my mind and I do wish there was a way for me to exorcise them from my brain, preferably without taking a electric drill to it.

As a fan of film and of the horror genre I have watched more than my fair share of twisted and nasty films, some with merit some without. Particularly nasty examples that stand out include Cannibal Holocaust, Guinea Pig: Devil’s Experiment, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Thriller: A Cruel Picture (the very distasteful cut with all the sex scenes included), I Spit on Your Grave and A New York Ripper but there are so many other examples too that plumb the depths of depravity and splatter the screen with perversion and real horror. A Serbian Film affected me more than any of these notorious examples.

One film that has recently caused much controversy, something which was actually a little surprising to me, is Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. Although the film wasn’t an easy watch I actually found Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000) far more affecting and therefore disturbing. The affect I felt in these films is why I bring up these in reference to A Serbian Film. One thing the director (Srdjan Spasojevic) achieves with A Serbian Film that so often alludes horror filmmakers is he has created a film that is genuinely affecting. So often extreme films are emotionally cold, the filmmakers focus on shock and gore but there is no emotional backbone to the film leaving an audience with a slightly numb passive experience where technical elements such as the special effects become far more important than the plot or the characters. A film such as Breaking the Waves is not a horror film but it is horrific and deeply disturbing and this is the company that A Serbian Film fits much better in. It is not as good a film as Breaking the Waves or as emotionally effective but the harrowing and draining experience of watching the two is somewhat comparable. I thought both of these films were incredible but I don’t really wan’t to watch them again as the raw punch to the gut and draining feeling that I felt is something that I want from cinema but it also something that is rare and should perhaps remain so.

Central to this feeling is the way Spasojevic presents the characters and develops the relationships adding to this engagement effectively. The family at the centre of A Serbian Film is a believable one and one that, despite Milos’ unconventional job, Spasojevic makes it easy to connect to. As an audience you care about the characters and this makes the events all the more disturbing. As our protagonist Milos is also our relatable focal point in the film, as the twisted scenes unfold in front of his eyes and ours, we are both merely the play things of a director (both fictional and real) who is intent in not just making us watch but also be complicit in the vile acts on screen.

One thing that Spasojevic also does though that took me out of the film and lessened the impact in places was that there are moments where we are not actually shown the despicable acts but left to imagine. The way these scenes are filmed though is impressive and it brings to mind the case study in Annette Hill’s excellent book Shocking Entertainment in which one viewer of Reservoir Dogs believed that he had actually seen the ear be sliced off when the camera actually pans away from this. Even though there is plenty of horror up on the screen in A Serbian Film there are still some things that are heavily suggested rather than explicitly shown. One scene in particular where Spasojevic uses this technique is when Vukmir shows Milos a film he’s made which features an unbelievably distasteful pornographic sequence. Milos, again like the audience, is repulsed by this and literally runs from the room. Aside from the slight of hand that manages to actually show little but disturb greatly (although this is perhaps lessened with the understanding of the trick Spasojevic is employing) this scene is fascinating in the way it references the director/audience relationship as the director (Vukmir) shows the audience (Milos) something truly despicable and Milos runs like crazy not wanting to see what he is shown. We the audience though remain seated, waiting for more. Although there are a number of complexities to the reasons why we remain that make up a wider discussion A Serbian Film did make me question this attitude. Why was I watching this film, knowing full well the nature of the content? More so, why did I actively seek it out? This is not an easy question to answer and one that I could not do justice in a thousand or so words although I think the main reason is related to wanting art to have an impact, a noticeable effect. The film raises theses questions about viewing depraved acts real or fictional (in a much less heavy handed way than Haneke’s Funny Games, for instance) and it was this that I actually found to be one of the most effective subtexts to the film rather than the political conversations that have surrounded it.

Spasojevic has gone on record many times in defence of A Serbian Film explaining that the film is a political allegory. When speaking to Bloody Disgusting he said the following:

We’ve been living in Serbia our whole lives and we’ve experienced the last 20 years, which have been tumultuous. They were really depressing and frightening. It’s the political stuff and everything else that comes to the forefront, but it’s also our own experiences with everything that’s happened and the emotions that start to develop from living in an environment where anything can happen at any time. It’s like something that has been concentrating for a long time and it’s been storing up for a long time.

Also, Spasojevic had this to say to Fangoria about one of the film’s most extreme scenes (with some minor spoilers):

It was never an intention to shock [with that moment], but only to express our deepest and most sincere feelings about how strongly we feel violated… This baby represents us and everyone else whose innocence and youth have been stolen by those who are governing our lives for purposes unknown. In this scene, we only painted a literal metaphor of how we feel. This image is so extreme that it actually defames violence and nullifies it at its core.

Is this political allegory actually on the screen? I’m not so sure it is and there is a part of me that wonders if this is a justification born out of the need to justify rather than genuine intent. The title certainly brings home the point though, sounding like a declaration , this is A Serbian Film, this is a film about us, a film about Serbia. The political subtext that Spasojevic has discussed above is fascinating and the problems he speaks of are upsetting and important to hear but I didn’t feel Spasojevic succeeded in infusing the film with this discussion and actually the boundary pushing and taboo breaking elements in A Serbian Film are far more effective. Films with horror and/or sexual content but with political intentions are something that a lot of audiences appreciate, including myself, and filmmakers such as Koji Wakamatsu share this approach and it is one that is constantly fascinating and exciting. If Spasojevic can build on this blistering debut with another film that better incorporates these elements he could establish himself as a real talent in this area.

On a purely technical level he is clearly a talented director and with the excellent cinematography by Nemanja Jovanov (who shot the film on the RED camera) and a fantastic electronica score by Wikluh Sky I was left wanting to see more from all those involved.

A Serbian Film is genuinely disturbing but it is not just a visceral experience, this is a film that will stay with you and engage your mind, although perhaps in ways you’d rather it didn’t. For your first chance to see it in the UK head to FrightFest later this month.