Just for the sake of putting things into perspective, I will state, for the record, that Salo: or the 120 Days of Sodom is one of the few films that, upon first viewing, I could not make it through. It is an endurance test of coprophagia, unspeakable vulgarity, and disturbingly graphic violence. I would also put Cannibal Holocaust on that short list of films that I could not finish. Its depictions of animal cruelty (actual animals were slaughtered in the film), along with its simulated (yet explicit) violence toward humans makes it an unbearable watch.
I mention these films because Srdjan Spasojevic’s debut, A Serbian Film, is being touted as the next Salo, a film that wallows so deeply in its own excesses that it becomes a torturous exercise for the viewer simply to make it through. It tells a simple tale, that of a retired porn star named Milosh who is lured out of retirement for one final gig that will set him, as well as his wife and child, financially for life. The catch: He cannot know what the film is about. He is taken to the set each day by a Steve Wilkos-lookalike, and his actions are communicated to him through an earpiece by a crazed director, who feels that he can get the best performance out of Milosh if he has to react on the fly.
The first couple days, though odd, are fairly straightforward enough, as he simply has to rely on his “talents”. But then things get odd. He is forced to hit a woman as she performs fellatio on him. He revels in horror and threatens to quit, something he does several times throughout, but somehow or another he ends up right back on the set. This leads to several sequences that have been touted as some of the most disturbing ever captured on celluloid, leading to the comparisons between the aforementioned films. But while Salo was more or less a vicious political statement, and Cannibal Holocaust was perhaps an influence on films like The Blair Witch Project (and thus, every feigned-documentary that has come since), A Serbian Film feels like it was written by a high-schooler who simply thought up the most tasteless things he could imagine, and wasted the time to film them. The “horrible” scenes are truly disturbing on paper, but in the context of the film they become almost laughable.
Sadly, it is not hard to imagine how, or why, a film like this would get the greenlight. Perhaps impossible a decade ago, it is exactly the kind of film that thrives in today’s society, where Hollywood seems to encourage and peddle the latest torture film to the masses of excited teenagers and young adults. Multiplexes, which were once a form of escapism and entertainment, are now filled with films in which the horrible atrocities committed toward innocent victims are all well within the boundaries of reality. The slasher film kills of yesteryear, which were committed by a masked murderer that couldn’t be stopped by anything, and which strived for a kind of fantastical creativity, have been replaced by semi-realistic murders that are committed by average, everyday people. It was only a matter of time until someone attempted to take the formula to the farthest envelope imaginable. And it will only be a matter of time until someone attempts to take it further.
A Serbian Film‘s strongest weapon is the fact that it is well-made. The score is strong, as are the performances, and the camerawork and editing insinuate that this film carried a decent budget, especially for a first-time filmmaker, and such unforgiving subject matter. The gore effects, of which there are quite a few toward the end, are also really well done. Unfortunately, by the time the gore sequences finally arrive, the movie has already overstayed its welcome, and the juvenile attempts to shock have already worn thin. The ending is also blatantly obvious, though I am guessing, like everything else, that it was supposed to come as a surprise.
But its flaws so completely overpower the plusses that, in the end, all we are left with is a shock film that even fails in its sole purpose. On paper, A Serbian Film sounds like an over-the-top, nauseating mess, but there’s just something missing in its translation from script to screen that prevents it from being anything more than a failed experiment in pushing cinematic limits. If you are a fan of the mainstream, this movie will no doubt hit you hard and stick with you for the rest of your life. But to any jaded fan of horror, this is a movie that is, by turns, agonizingly slow, agonizingly long, and agonizingly misguided, with the added downfall of having absolutely no redeeming qualities, or any point it wants to make, for sludging through its infinite ugliness.
Rating: * (out of 4)