While cinema is traditionally an entertainment medium, there are limits to even that label. Those that opt for something more…. extreme are classified as as exploitation films, varying in genre but typically featuring extreme graphic violence, abhorrent sexuality or a heavy amount of drug use. Such content results in the film getting slapped with either an “Unrated” or NC-17” rating, the latter being if said film is released in theaters. These are the movies that mainstream audiences would not rather see and, and with good reason. One of the most infamous exploitation film was released ten years ago and, whether you’ve seen or not, you’ve more than likely heard its name: A Serbian Film.
This particular movie was highly controversial upon its release and ended up being outright banned in at least forty-six countries. That’s nearly a quarter of all the countries on this planet! In the United States, one minute of A Serbian Film alone had to be cut just to earn it’s “NC-17” rating. So, why was this film so controversial when it was first released? Is it as bad as people say it is? Why would a good friend of mine ask me to watch a film that showcases some of the worst scenes in recent movie history? And, are there any good exploitation films to watch?
A Serbian Film
Now, I want to start off by saying that I have watched several exploitation films. Has anyone ever seen The Human Centipede, I Spit on your Grave (1978), Haute Tension or even Ichi the Killer? All of these movies feature scenes that are difficult to sit through and leave images in your mind that are impossible to forget. Some of them are good and others are just plain awful. With exploitation films, one must wonder what’s remotely good about them if the level of violence is so extreme? Well, it all depends on the film itself and if it’s constructed in way that audiences can find entertaining.
I heard of A Serbian Film when it first released and heard nothing but negative comments. It was about three years ago that a friend suggested I watch this film. I remember what he said to me, “Rick, this isn’t a movie for entertainment, I just want your opinion on it.” Seems simple enough right? Well, I forgot all about it until I happened to see that the film’s anniversary was approaching and decided, “What the heck, I’ll watch it.”
As a critic, our job is to be objective when watching a film. We can have no bias or already formed opinions of whatever we are about to see. It’s a clean slate and we can only judge the film for what it is. Now, I will admit I did cheat prior to watching the movie. I did some research and read about the political background and the allegories it was trying to convey. This did assist me in better understanding the point of the film, but I keep whatever thoughts I had to myself once I screened the film at home. So, let me give you a rundown of A Serbian Film.
The movie is about a guy named Miloš (Srđan Todorović), a retired pornographic actor living in Serbia with his wife and son. The movies he made certainly weren’t the greatest, but his reputation as being the best in the business is well known. He is able to sexually perform on command and can film scene after scene without pausing for even a moment. He doesn’t appear to be living the good rich life, even though he has a nice home and a good-looking family. His son goes to school and attends piano lessons while Miloš’ wife is worried about their financial status.
Miloš is offered a job by a mysterious man named Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović), a pornography film director who takes a high interest in Miloš and wants him for a new “art film” he’s making. Miloš is under obligation to not read the script or be informed of what it is he’s participating in. He has to sign a contract and act out the scenes as they are told to him via the director. Miloš takes caution but the promise of good money is something he can’t afford to pass on. He starts filming and, at first, everything is a bit strange but nothing that Miloš isn’t already familiar with. As with most pornographic films, there isn’t much a plot to get involved in, but as we follow Miloš and the film crew, we are sort of drawn into what exactly is going on.
I will say that for the first hour, I was deeply hooked. From a technical standpoint, A Serbian Film is well made and all the actors are quite good here. I even enjoyed the cinematography and the psychedelic soundtrack. Even the script does a good job of making us feel like Miloš, being unaware of what’s about to happen to him. We are just as confused as he is and learn things about the plot simultaneously.
During this time we see many sex scenes, some of which are quite graphic and even brutal to watch. Personally, I don’t enjoy watching scenes like this on film as it makes me uncomfortable to watch, which can be tedious at times. Yet I was sort of drawn into watching these scene more closely for the simple fact that I’m trying to figure exactly what kind of movie Miloš was participating in. I said earlier that films do have their limits, and for myself watching scenes that involve violence against women or children is a limit of mine, and be warned, A Serbian Film features shocking violence of this nature.
As I said, the first hour is very good but as the film was drawing closer to its end, a revelation happens to Miloš where we discover that something truly awful has happened. I won’t get into specifics but I’ll give you words that will best describe what happens without revealing the true depravity. There are scenes involving rape, murder during sex, necrophilia and even child sex abuse. To some of you that just read those words, you may be wondering “how I can watch a movie that features scenes like that?” Those mostly happen during the last forty minutes, some which are very difficult to watch but for myself, I managed to look past all these abhorrent moments and focus on the movie as a whole. Trust me, it’s easier said than done.
There are a couple of issues with A Serbian Film. While the aforementioned scenes are terrifying to watch, one can baulk at their audacity. We learn why these scenes happen and the motivation for making them, but even as a film critic, I found some of the scenes to be quite silly to say the least. There are even some questions I had about the plot once was over, but this film can be best described with two emotions- you’re either repelled by what you see or you’ll be rolling your eyes. I’m on the latter end of the equation.
So, what was my initial reaction to A Serbian Film? Well, I can’t say that I would recommend it but I can’t say that it’s a bad film either. It’s well made, I do praise the direction and the script, and the movie isn’t made to be a pointless shocker. It did have a cohesive plot and solid acting and didn’t appear to be cheaply made. A lot of effort was put into the movie and for that I do have to give credit to the production team. To my surprise, I even wasn’t disgusted by the violent sexual scenes and, believe it or not, I do have a plausible explanation for that.
Violent movies are perfectly fine to watch so long as there is a point to the violence on display. I don’t like watching violence just because it’s there- that’s boring. Most of the Saw movies made it a point to show all the gore they could because that’s what the audience liked. Even The Human Centipede tried to have a story with the first film, but with the sequels the franchise just became a gross freak-show that wasn’t entertaining nor involving. A Serbian Film is extremely violent, especially the scenes involving women and children. In fact, the movie was investigated by the Serbian Government for crimes against sexual morals and crimes related to the protection of minors.
Having said that, I was engaged with its script and the mystery behind what the pornographic director Vukmir was planning all along. Yes, the violence is very unsettling but in some way I couldn’t look away. Perhaps I have a sort of desensitized reaction to some of these exploitation movies. Maybe it’s the fact that a family friend of mine was murdered when I was young and that inadvertently got me interested in studying all forms of crime. It’s true that Vukmir is making a snuff film (a movie in which people are murdered for real) and Miloš has no idea. But, as disturbing as that premise sounds, these things really do happen.
For example, look at the Ukrainian case of the Dnepropetrovsk maniacs who filmed several of their murders with a handheld camera while they brutally attacked victims. These crimes do happen but for most people, seeing them is even harder to imagine and A Serbian Film does just that. As a critic, I kept my biases to myself and watched the film for what it was. Once it was over, I returned to the background information and realized the political allegory director Srđan Spasojević was going for. However, seriously speaking, I think it could’ve been done in a much better way.
A Serbian Film is a vile, disgusting and filthy piece of filmmaking, something that I can safely assume most people would say and wouldn’t disagree with them. If you ever are brave enough to watch this movie, I wouldn’t be surprised if you turned it off after a couple of minutes. Yes, it is assaulting to the eyes and damaging to our emotions but that’s the point: it’s an exploitation film. It’s meant to shock you, rattle your nerves and leave you with the feeling that something is crawling all over you. It’s a film not for the faint of heart, and for that reason it succeeds.
I can appreciate all the effort that went into making A Serbian Film and I especially liked the actor who played Miloš, who was simply eye-catching. The movie drew me in with interest and left me with more questions than answers; perhaps there were some plot holes that confused me but overall I can say that this movie is effective for what it is. Exploitation films certainly have their fans and if you’re hardcore into the sick depravity of humans then A Serbian Film will achieve what you’re looking for. Hey. I’m not here to judge anyone.
Despite all the violence and sadistic behavior that was on display, I can say that I could watch the film’s first hour again, which really did interest me. Like I said, violent movies are fine so long as they are of interest. Take The Devil’s Rejects for example. A violent, grotesque and sadistic film to watch and yet is captivating to witness. There’s a plot to follow, characters to remember and scenes that we’ll remember for years to come. A Serbian Film shares all of those traits, at least in my opinion, but not for most audiences. Everyone has limits to what they can watch and there will be films that test our patience.
1978’s I Spit on your Grave, for example, is one of the most deplorable films I’ve seen. It’s everything that The Devil’s Rejects and A Serbian Film are not. It’s sickening not for entertainment, but mainly to annoy the audience of anything that can be redeemed as good filmmaking, although it’s be remade numerous times to the same effect. If you want a better option, I suggest watching the French film Revenge, which has a similar story but with a feminist twist. Again, it’s violent, gory and depraved but, still made for a thrilling experience.
Exploitation films have been around for longer than you may think, dating as far back as the 1930s but were better known as “cautionary tales.” Like them or hate them, exploitation is a genre that is popular and can be good when done right. Countries may ban them, people can talk badly about them, but when it comes to controversy, these films do peak the public’s interest.
Just like when my friend suggested I watch A Serbian Film, I can recall that he saw it for the exact same reason. It was controversial upon released, yes his curiosity got the better of him. I’m not sure whether to thank him or not, but regardless he did inspire this piece. It certainly takes balls to make a movie like this and you can either like or hate Srđan Spasojević, who also co-wrote the script, but there is no debate when I say that A Serbian Film is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. You’ve been warned.