The screening began with Tim League -- venerable genre film enthusiast, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse, and programmer of the SX Fantastic showcase in which Serbian Film was playing -- telling me and the rest of the audience to get the hell out. Either that, or he didn't want to hear any whining after Serbian Film kicked our asses, heretofore thought inured to on-screen gore and depravity after years of worshipping at the altar of the horror movie. This was not idle talk. Ninety-six minutes later, I was among a group of a half-dozen battle-hardened critics and writers who, when asked for their impressions of what they had just seen, found themselves unable to string together a coherent sentence. Consensus: Serbian Film was, by a long shot, the most disturbing thing we had ever seen.
Let me put my cards on the table: this movie depicts some acts that I think should not be depicted. I don't mean legally: as a free speech absolutist, I would never advocate for anything being banned, no matter how awful, so long as no one is actually hurt. But I do think -- or am starting to think -- that filmmakers have a moral obligation not to show certain things unless they are prepared to seriously grapple with their real-world consequences. Like Michael Haneke's Funny Games, Serbian Film is interested not in the substance of the images it puts on the screen, but in the images themselves: their power and their effect on us. This is perfectly legitimate, but in this particular case a line has been crossed. If saying that is moralistic and unprogressive, so be it.
Now you want to know what could be so shocking. By not telling you, I'm probably playing right into the hands of the filmmakers -- to the extent there is an audience for this film, it consists of gorehound curiosity-seekers wanting to test their mettle against the reigning sickest movie of all time -- but I don't want to either spoil or validate the film by describing its money shots. Most of you don't want to read about them anyway.
The plot concerns a legendary Serbian porn star named Milos (Srdjan Todorovic). Milos is persuaded to leave retirement by a shady pornographer (Sergej Trifunovich) who offers him obscene amounts of money to headline a mysterious project for an untold wealthy client. The condition is that Milos will not know what they are shooting, or what he will be expected to do, until the cameras are rolling. When he arrives on set, Milos is puzzled and freaked out: it's not clear exactly what's going on, but it's creepy, and children are involved. A couple days later, he decides to call it quits. Then things get really ugly.
Before we get to the scenes that will shortly make the movie legendary (they don't begin in earnest until a bit more than halfway through), Serbian Film is reasonably effective as an insinuating slow-burner. There's a buzzing bass soundtrack that gets under your skin, sunny locales that the movie nonetheless manages to make supremely creepy, and even some convincing scenes of domestic bliss between Milos, his hyper-intelligent wife, and their adorable son. As the film opens, the boy accidentally stumbles upon a movie from Milos' heyday, and the way his parents handle this predicament is actually kind of touching.
The last forty-five minutes of Serbian Film, however, are relentlessly horrifying. They are skillfully optimized for optimal shock value, but at a certain point notions of "good" and "bad" evaporate. I am not speaking as a film critic, but as a human being when I assure you -- not paternalistically, but just as a practical matter -- that the vast majority of you do not want to see them. I don't think the filmmakers will be offended to hear this. They surely know it.
And yet I must also say that Serbian Film is not idle exploitation. Aside from being an obvious political allegory (though, not having the necessary cultural context, I don't claim to understand its nuances), it takes the moral and ethical issues surrounding pornography seriously. It is genuinely interested in the question of where we draw the line between "innocent titillation" and "anti-social perversion." People get off on a lot of creepy things; is it okay to facilitate that? And once you start asking that question about the really twisted stuff, how do you justify run-of-the-mill porn, in which women are regularly shown to be hurt and humiliated? Why is that okay? And of course there's a meta aspect to it: those of us who went to see Serbian Film -- even those of us who ultimately got more than we bargained for -- "get off" on this stuff too, albeit in a different way. There will be those who call Serbian Film pornography, and that may not be a characterization that the filmmakers would challenge either. I think they raise the question deliberately.
I cannot recommend Serbian Film to anyone. It is a movie that hard-core horror fans will be daring each other to endure for years to come. On an intellectual level, I think I can see and appreciate what it's trying to do. But if I could unsee it, I would.