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Breaking Eastern Promises

MOVIE REVIEW
A Serbian Film (2010)

A-serbian-film-sergej-trifunovic-srdjan-todorovic-lena-bogdanovic
Invincible Pictures

Caveat: This review assumes your awareness of “A Serbian Film” and its notoriety. Readers casually browsing through this site who’ve never heard of the title before should stop right here and move on to something else. The sole raison d’être for this review is to advance — rather than initiate — the discussion on the film, as all other write-ups so far have been polarizing yet uniformly prudish. In order to fully engage, this review will spare no graphic detail. So before going forward, please consider yourself warned.

Multiple versions of “A Serbian Film” exist: two in America alone, and both censored. This review refers to the version screened at South by Southwest in 2010, which includes what amounts to less than a minute omitted in the “uncut” version available on-demand through FlixFling and seven minutes not found in the NC-17-rated theatrical release. Movie-Censorship.com (NSFW) offers an illustrated comparison between the original and the version excised by the B.B.F.C. Yes, director Srdjan Spasojevic and his writing partner Aleksandar Radivojevic have conjured up some reprehensible stuff, but various versions of the film do offer valuable insight on what censors find objectionable. In the wise words of A. O. Scott, “the best part of this movie may be that members of the M.P.A.A. ratings board had to sit through it.”

Literally putting the “porn” in torture porn is the film’s central conceit, but most of the ideas it communicates are no more outrageous than ones in Hollywood blockbusters such as Joel Schumacher’s “8mm” or Eli Roth’s “Hostel” films — only “A Serbian Film” leaves fewer gory details up to your imagination. And to be fair, what’s shown here isn’t any more repulsive than other art films of an exploitative bent such as “A Clockwork Orange,” “Salò,” “Baise-moi” and, more recently, “Antichrist” — save for the “newborn porn,” which seems to be the real point of contention in “A Serbian Film” that has rarely survived censorship and even led to the Spanish prosecution of Sitges festival director Ángel Sala.

Messrs. Spasojevic and Radivojevic seem to intend the film as political allegory, with snuff filmmaker-child pornographer Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic) wistfully declaring what he does as “the only warrant for this nation’s survival. We’re the backbone of this country’s economy. Only we can prove that this nation is alive and useful for anything … Not pornography, but life itself! That’s life of a victim. Love, art, blood … flesh and soul of a victim transmitted to a world who has lost all that and now is paying to watch that from the comfort of an armchair.” Too bad that once past the one-hour mark — as the unwitting out-of-retirement porn star Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) reconstructs his memory, “The Hangover”-style — “A Serbian Film” becomes nonsensical and reeks of mere shock tactics.

Regardless of how vile you think “A Serbian Film” is, you must concede that it’s technically very well made. It’s amazing how it has everyone up in arms without a single frame of vaginal or anal insert. The film maximizes the suggestive power of montage, causing you to squirm in the fairly uneventful first hour simply by framing innocuous imagery in a sexualized or violent context. Bottom line is, this film doesn’t make any taboo look sexy — not even remotely. If you find it arousing, you are the problem.

A SERBIAN FILM

Opened on May 13 in Manhattan.

Produced and directed by Srdjan Spasojevic; written by Aleksandar Radivojevic and Mr. Spasojevic; director of photography, Nemanja Jovanov; edited by Darko Simic; music by Sky Wikluh; production design by Nemanja Petrovic; costumes by Jasmina Sanader; released by Invincible Pictures. In Serbian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. This film is rated NC-17.

WITH: Srdjan Todorovic (Milos), Sergej Trifunovic (Vukmir), Jelena Gavrilovic (Marija), Katarina Zutic (Lejla), Slobodan Bestic (Marko) and Ana Sakic (Jecina Majka).

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