The critical reception to Srđjan Spasojević's A Serbian Film (2009) [official site] has been characterized by qualified reviews that remind me of the classic depiction of the Buddha in his "fear-dispelling" (abhaya) and "boon-bestowing" (varada) mudrās, which is to say the knowledge (i.e., experience) that this film imparts is offered only by way of overcoming aversion to—or more simply put, withstanding—the perverse violence it depicts. Whether critics or audiences are up to that onerous task remains to be seen.
By "qualified reviews", I offer these examples: At Fearnet.com Scott Weinberg writes: "I think the film is tragic, sickening, disturbing, twisted, absurd, infuriated, and actually quite intelligent. There are those who will be unable (or unwilling) to decipher even the most basic of 'messages' buried within A Serbian Film, but I believe it's one of the most legitimately fascinating films I've ever seen. I admire and detest it at the same time. And I will never watch it again. Ever."
At The Temple of Ghoul, Dejan Ognjanović asserts: "A Serbian Film is the most shocking film you're likely to see this year—or any year soon. And the most shocking thing about it is how well made, well acted and poignant it is."
At Twitch, Todd Brown concurs: "A Serbian Film is one of the most incredibly raw and transgressive films I have ever seen. This is a film that left me feeling dirty and assaulted, a film that will surely spark protest and deservedly so. A film that contains a flurry of genuinely shocking imagery sure to spark genuine horror and revulsion from its audience. Spasojević is always going to be the man responsible for that film.
"There is, however, another part of [me] that feels an overwhelming admiration for Spasojević and what he has done here. A Serbian Film is one of the most assured and technically accomplished debut films I have come across in some time. More importantly, as raw as the imagery may be it is never without a point. As extreme as it gets this is no mere exploitation film. No, this is a satire as sharp and pointed and genuinely shocking as was Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal when it first appeared on the scene suggesting that the poor sell their children as food. A Serbian Film is an astoundingly bold piece of work, one that will not just trigger a firestorm of criticism—any fool with bad taste can do that—but one that also has the substance and purpose to withstand it. And Spasojević is always going to be the man responsible for that film."
By contrast, Alison Willmore's purposely spoiler-laden review at IFC protests that "while Serbian Film absolutely has aspirations beyond exploitation, they feel applied after the fact. Most of the graphic sequences, which are grouped near the end, don't come across as specific to the commentary on the Serbian national mindset toward which the film makes occasional gestures. They're more like live-action recreations of guro's greatest hits" [NSFW link!] and she concludes: "Movies can use transgressive topics and imagery toward great artistic resonance.... They can also just use them for pure shock/novelty/boundary-pushing, which is where I'd group Serbian Film. That it comes from a country that's spent decades deep in violent conflict, civil unrest, corruption and ethnic tensions makes it tempting to read more into the film than I think it actually offers—ultimately, it has as much to say about its country of origin as Hostel does about America, which is a little, but nothing on the scale its title suggests."
As reported by Eric Kohn to the Wall Street Journal, Spasojević was quick to jump to his own defense, explaining to his stunned Alamo Drafthouse audience at the film's SXSW premiere that A Serbian Film is framed as an angry reaction to the country's rampant censorship laws. "This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government," he said. "We’re giving this back to you." As of its SXSW screening, A Serbian Film had not yet been seen in Serbia though—according to the film's website—it recently premiered there in mid-June. "In the past 10 to 15 years," Spasojević explained, "the only films made in Serbia have no connection to Serbian reality." This is suggested straight off in the film's opening title credits where a deceptively charming title replete with ethnic accordion music is interrupted and slammed with a violent substitution. According to Spasojević, A Serbian Film is "about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don't want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it's about."
In perhaps the least qualified review of the bunch, Harry Knowles at Ain't It Cool News deems the film "brilliant" and "handsome" and predicts: "I would fully expect this film to be shortened by a minute or two for domestic distribution. I completely get this situation because in its current state, there are a handful of theaters in the United States that would have the chutzpah to show the film that was shown at Midnight at the Alamo Drafthouse South in Austin. That's not a false praise, it is a reality. This is a film that when the prints were made … twice, the film developer burned those prints because they didn't understand what they were looking at. This is a film that without breaking any major rules … seems to, but again if you take a very reasoned look at what you are seeing at any given moment, you realize what you are not seeing onscreen at the same time."
All the more reason to honor the bravery of Holehead's programmers George Kaskanlian and Eric Ringer and their Roxie Film Center venue for allowing San Franciscan audiences to experience the film on its own merits and on their own terms. At least a handful, I know—myself included—felt A Serbian Film worthy to view twice, irrespective of Scott Weinberg's qualifications. I don't know if we benefited from the advance ballyhoo but the Roxie audience cheered on this masterpiece of depravity. If—as mythologist Joseph Campbell has suggested—the transgressive is part and parcel of the heroic, Srđjan Spasojević's A Serbian Film heroically wrestles with the visceral power of the projected image, raising the serious specters of prurience, voyeurism, and the staged distance of horror as entertainment, which—in many ways—comes off morally bankrupt by comparison to the raw and honest engagement presented in Spasojević's accomplished debut. I'm reminded of the philosophy behind Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. I'm reminded of Max Renn's conflicted fascination in David Cronenberg's Videodrome. I was kept on edge by Wikluh Sky's droning industrial score punctuated by singular notes struck on a triangle that felt like a ball peen hammer was striking my nerves directly. I was fully riveted by the powerhouse performances of Srđan Todorović as A Serbian Film's unwitting protagonist Miloš and Sergej Trifunović as its maniacal antagonist Vukmir. And I was reminded most of all of the Buddha in his "fear-dispelling" and "boon-bestowing" mudrā, aware that somewhere inbetween these attitudes, fear itself becomes the gift.
Cross-published on Twitch.