SXSW Film Review: Serbian Film (Srpski Film)

Posted on March 16, 2010 by Ben 22 Comments

Serbian Film (Srpski Film) (2009)
SXSW 2010
Directed by: Srdjan Spasojevic
Written by: Aleksandar Radivojevic
Studio: Contra Film
Review by: Britt Hayes

I’m going to be honest here: before SXSW, I hadn’t watched a trailer for any of the films playing. Part of me wanted to avoid having any expectations going in and be genuinely surprised. But then a friend pointed out the trailer for Serbian Film. As soon as I saw the trailer, I knew this film was something special. Serbian Film would be unlike anything I had ever seen.

And I was right.

Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) is a semi-retired porn star who only makes a film when his family (wife Maria and his adorable son) is teetering on broke. Then he gets a call from his old porn partner, Layla, who has a once in a lifetime offer for him. There’s a new director in town named Vukmir who is looking to make a high-art, high-concept, more “realistic” porn film, and he wants Milos for his fabled ability to get and maintain an erection without any visual or physical stimuli. Milos meets with Vukmir in a sprawling mansion-style home, where it becomes clear that Vukmir is well-connected, to say the least. Vukmir vaguely explains his concept and says that there is no script, but assures Milos that he will make so much money from this one film, that his son will be taken care of for the rest of his life. So Milos signs the dotted line.

The next morning Milos is picked up and taken to a warehouse where he is given an earpiece by his driver. A voice whispers each move in his ear, and he follows. It seems harmless and sort of banal at first, until a little girl shows up and things begin to get a bit violent with a co-star. It’s here that this high-concept porn film rapidly disintegrates into something sinister. Milos decides this isn’t for him (the first and probably only good idea this guy has during the whole movie), but when he tries to back out, things go from awful to…a word that hasn’t even evolved in our vocabulary yet. Fucking terrible? Appalling? Disgusting? Horrifying.

Serbian Film is not for the faint of heart. You can put a disclaimer at the beginning of a film (“Keep telling yourself ‘It’s only a movie!'”), but more often than not people are not going to take it seriously. If anything it’s a reinforcement of the old adage: tell a kid not to do something, and they’re going to be more inclined to do it. We innately desire what is forbidden, and that is just one of the many ideas that the filmmakers touch on here.

I don’t know much about Serbia. I know it’s a nation that has been rife with conflict for a long time, but here in good ol’ ‘Merica, we don’t usually talk about Serbia (you know, because they don’t have anything we want). When listening to the filmmakers talk after the screening, they were passionate, well-spoken, and had a very clear vision and intention for the film. Serbian Film is not a piece of cinema that seeks to be obscene for the sake of obscenity, and it’s not a film that’s all about shock value with no merit. This is a politically, emotionally, socially, and artistically charged movie. Would I want to see some of the same content in other films? No. But I do want to see more filmmakers this passionate and fearless about their subject matter.

To say that the content in Serbian Film is rough would be a severe understatement. There are images here that no other filmmaker would dream of putting in a film, and if they did, it’s a dream they’d keep to themselves. Imagine everything they would never put in a film – whether it’s a horror film or not is irrelevant – and it’s found its way into Serbian Film. I’ve heard people say that the filmmakers have crossed a line. I’m not going to argue that point because they clearly have, but I believe that in doing so they not only made their point, but they did a damn good job of it. I don’t question their choices because they don’t feel hollow and devoid of meaning. This is an angry film made by very angry people, inspired by their relationship as a people with their country.

There’s also some interesting commentary on what it means to be a family, and what you sacrifice for their happiness only to destroy them and yourself in the process. The filmmakers explained during the Q & A that the landscape of European cinema as they know it makes it nearly impossible to get a film made. Backers want a victim, and that victim has to have a confession as to what made them a victim. Vukmir clearly represents European cinema and its need to victimize, with the client he’s making the film for representing bureaucracy – there’s always an asshole that’s bigger, more important, and more in charge than you. There’s also some commentary on entertainment and how far people in that industry will go, or feel like they have to go, to please an audience. I think this part of the commentary is universal, and it’s the same kind of finger-wagging that Michael Haneke has done in the past. As an audience we are insatiable. No amount of violence or sex is or ever will be enough, and Serbian Film shows us all of those things we don’t even want to consider.

As a commentary on victims and victimization, the filmmakers are almost saying “You want a victim? We’ll give you a dozen of them, and we’ll victimize them so bad that you’ll never want a film about victims again.” Some metaphors in the film are so clear that you can almost see an arrow pointing right at them. I can’t get into details because I don’t want to spoil the film for you, and chances are, you wouldn’t want to hear about it anyway.

It’s hard to recommend Serbian Film to anyone because the content is so brutal, but the message and the motivations behind it are genuine, passionate, and should be taken seriously. This is a very important film, and I know I’m not alone in saying that I felt privileged to see it. More importantly, I felt privileged to see it unedited, the way the filmmakers intended. The Fantasia Film Festival recently picked up Serbian Film as part of a trio of subversive Serbian films they’ll play. I’m anxious to hear the response out of our neighbors in Canada, particularly because I don’t foresee Serbian Film getting US distribution in any form. I spoke with writer Aleksandar Radivojevic last night and asked about a DVD release. He seemed rather optimistic about getting it released, and said that he’s already had a few interested distributors step forward with offers.

When Tim League (owner of the Alamo Drafthouse) got up and said this was one of the most fucked up movies he had ever seen, we all knew we were in for something rough. Tim is a guy who has had a life-long mission to seek out and watch some of the most depraved pieces of cinema ever captured. If you don’t think you can stomach this movie (and not many people can), then don’t watch it. This film is not for everyone. But if you find that you can sit through it, you’ll walk away appreciative. Even if you are repulsed by the content and disagree with the delivery of the message, you will still find Serbian Film to be ultimately important – as a piece of cinema, and as a platform. Another thing I think everyone can agree on is that the film is beautifully made. Shot on RED, it’s executed perfectly and absolutely gorgeous. The music, sound editing, and actors all combine with the cinematography in one of those rarely seen but highly coveted and impeccable end results. Love it or hate it, Serbian Film is well-executed and well-played.

It’s a film that I want to show to people, but not because I want them to witness such horrible atrocities. I want to show this film to people and get them talking about what it is to them, what it means, and how much it impacts them on a conscious level.

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  • Nevencho says:

    A masterpiece.

  • alex says:

    do you know that this movie doesn’t have distributor in Serbia?

    We in Sebia didn’t see this movie 🙁

  • James_FOTD says:

    This sounds freakin’ awesome. I need to see this ASAP!

  • moonboy says:

    I heard that the movie is already baned in Germany.
    I can’t wait to see it! It will be in theaters in autumn in Serbia.

  • Jude says:

    Cannot wait for this movie. This review only reaffirms that desire

  • Matt says:

    I’m very jealous that you had the chance to see this. I really want to check it despite its brutal content. Somehow I’ll get my hands on it – either physical copy or via other means. Awesome review too.

  • Britt Hayes says:

    Matt – it will be a long time before anyone sees a physical copy of this. We can hope for Canadian release, but that’s pushing it. According to one of the writers, they have a few companies with offers in on DVD distribution, but it’s unclear what countries will see that distribution.

    As for “other means”, I hope you don’t mean pirating. Small films like this suffer because of pirating. Who knows if you’d want to buy the film after downloading it. These guys need our monetary support, and I cannot condone pirating independent films, especially ones with such a strong message. These guys poured their guts into this film. Don’t desecrate that, dude.

  • Dustin says:

    Excellent review! I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, I’ll seek it out for sure!

  • Robert says:

    This will likely never see a US release in any form. There is already some discussion of whether or not the showing of this film constitutes a criminal act due to the most notorious scene. I have not seen this, nor do I want to. I initially thought I did until hearing some descriptions of scenes in this film. In one scene a woman has her teeth brutally pulled out and is then forced to perform fellatio on a man until she chokes to death on her own blood. In another, a character rams his genitals with someones eye socket. The most controversial scene is a newborn infant is raped to death immediately after birth. It is reportedly still attached to its mother by its umbilical cord. I’m not sure if the rape was anal or not, there’s some suggestion that it was. (Does it matter at this point?) I believe some US statutes prohibit even simulated acts of pedophilia which is likely this film’s highest hurdle to an unaltered US release.

  • Joaquim says:

    I find it pretty amazing that people can actually take this bullshit film seriously and try to justify it somehow with this generic talk about artistic merit which ends up being vague and meaningless.

  • Britt Hayes says:

    This film is not for everyone. And that is not some hollow statement filled with hyperbole to get you or anyone else to run out and “test” themselves with this film to see if they can stomach it. It’s a very serious statement. This film is simply not for everyone. I’m going to post my rebuttal here, and this will serve for you and anyone else who wanders over here (I believe you’ve already posted on AICN) to comment:

    First, I purposefully left out spoilers. Some may disagree and think spoilers are necessary to keep people away from images they may not want to see, but my response is A. Majority of people will never see this film because it will struggle to get a release and B. I don’t think so. If what I described and insinuated above wasn’t enough to keep weary viewers away, then they can blame themselves, and not the filmmakers, when they make the conscious choice to sit through it.

    Second, you read spoilers, obviously (side note: not everyone wants to be spoiled). You have now made a snap judgment on this film based on images described to you taken out of context. Someone like you will have no desire to suspend their bias to attempt to understand the metaphors and allegories present in the film. Your response will be something along the lines of “those types of images aren’t necessary to get a point across and if they have to resort to that, they aren’t very good filmmakers.” My response to you?

    You haven’t lived in Serbia. Neither have I. But I do know that watching this film I got the distinct impression that these are an angry, violated people who have undoubtedly witnessed and experienced things we could never imagine in this country, thankfully. Are the images above necessary? In their case, they felt they were. These are people who have not been heard or given a voice, least of all in film. If they’re going to try and help people understand how violated and fucked over they feel, and this is their first chance to do so, wouldn’t you think that voice would be LOUD? It definitely is. This is their big chance to get people to empathize and understand their plight. Naturally they will resort to blatant, screeching metaphors and shocking images to get their point across. They want you to FEEL how they have felt, and to do that, they use images that relate to those feelings in one way or another to elicit a strong reaction.

    The baby scene you describe is not long, it is very short, and it is implied. It is also the least shocking image in the film. It’s the implication of the act that is shocking, and causes the viewer to think they saw more than they did. This is a brilliant effect that has been used in horror for decades. If the director can simply make you believe you saw something you didn’t based on pure manipulation and simple implication, and it in turn terrifies you, they have done their job.

    In addition, you don’t need to describe the scenes from the film to me, as I have already seen it as indicated by this review.

    Some people are offended by the film, sure. And like I said, it’s not for everyone. I respect everyone’s right to free speech, which is why I support this film. You can’t say one type of free speech is better or more correct than another. It’s a movie. It’s not real. The filmmakers are not condoning these vile acts or showing them in a positive light. They are negative and deplorable acts used metaphorically to tell a story. They are not empty images devoid of meaning, either.

    One last thing: I’d advise anyone who strongly objects to the inclusion of such images to simply stay away from the movie. No one is making you, your children, or anyone else watch the film. You have a choice. You’re an adult. It’s fine if you disagree with it, I respect your right to do so and respect your reasons. But I find it hard to believe that people could judge a film without watching it based on a few spoilers that have been slightly exaggerated and/or distorted and taken out of context.

  • Marc says:

    Holy fuck Britt…

  • ole says:

    Just saw this at Brussels’ International Fantastic Film Festival without much knowledge of what to expect… and having now read a couple of online reviews, I would like to make one thing clear : if it hadn’t been for the producers spinning the allegorical angle, I guarantee that no one would make the connection.
    This film contains zero social, political or economical commentary pertaining to Serbia’s history.

    This is were I feel the need to call bullshit on all the reviewers playing in on the filmmakers promotion.
    It’s very telling that none of the reviews are actually willing to go in depth about the supposed metaphors the film carries. Hiding behind your lack of knowledge of Serbia is not good enough an excuse. If you’re going to defend something, do your homework.

    I’m also willing to bet that the people involved in the making of this movie have little firsthand knowledge and experience of their home-country’s suffering. They are more likely to be geekish children of the upper class.

    This movie wallows in a questionnable glamorous Hollywood aesthetic, and presents imaginary people leading imaginary lives confronted with imaginary evil. Why is it the supposedly poor main character lives in a big, well furnished house ? What drives him to agree to something he knows is shady and probably dangerous, amoral and illegal ? Couldn’t he take a regular job like any of us ?

    All in all, I’m not going to recommend people steer clear. By all means if you’re curious, go and see for yourself.
    I’ll just conclude by saying that any movie going to the lenght of depicting newborn childrape better have a damn good reason to.
    A Serbian Movie did not present any.

  • Britt Hayes says:

    Ole – it’s one thing to disagree, but to dismiss their plight and struggle just because you disagree with their vision? Deplorable.

    What if a Holocaust survivor made an equally violent and disturbing film? Would you dismiss their vision so quickly just because you knew little about the Holocaust?

    Also, I didn’t connect the metaphors just because of what the filmmakers said. Some of what they said isn’t even included in this review because I don’t know what the hell has gone on in Serbia other than a repressive Communist regime. But what I did include in my review is my impression, which is that – regardless of whether you know what’s going on in Serbia or not – these people are angry, and this is a film about being violated, repressed, stifled, and victimized to the highest degree. It’s also about being exploited in your victimization, which is disgusting. No one says that Vukmir is a good character or the film within the film is anything positive. He is representative of a larger evil.

    Yeah, I don’t keep up with everything going on in the world, but I do try my best. If the filmmakers had been Sudanese, I’d probably be more studied on their allegories. Just because I don’t know what’s going on in Serbia doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a metaphorical film.

  • ole says:

    What I mean is that you cannot simply go by the filmmakers intentions and give them the benefit of the doubt. As a critic it is your job to scrutinize their work and ponder whether or not it is in line with those intentions and to what degree it succeeds in depicting them.

    Have you by any chance read FilmSchoolRejects’ review ? I’ll quote this one bit :

    “It is in this vein that I think A Serbian Film runs an oscillating gamut never transparently admitted by the filmmakers, one which marries the shock value we seek through exploitation and (horror) genre filmmaking with the intents of national allegory. Thus, some events operate within Serbian Film through allegory, while others suggest a desire by these filmmakers to exhibit such events because they wanted to see them on film in a way consistent with how genre and exploitation typically operate.
    Thus, A Serbian Film possesses the danger, in part, of justifying exploitation through genre rather than acknowledging the far more interesting (albeit uneven) union of allegory and exploitation possibly going on.”

    I happen to think that this murkiness does not have a place when dealing with heavy subject matters. It is clumsiness at best and shameless exploitation at worst.
    Passolini’s Salo is an ugly film depicting ugly things, its cinematography appropriately cold and unexciting so as to keep the spectator at bay, fully aware of the unfolding horror instead of sucking him in with eroticized violence.
    Not so here. Why ? This bears asking.

    And yes, I would apply the same reasoning to a Holocaust movie. Being a victim does not free one’s work from criticism.

    Maybe the filmmakers are sincere, but as they say Hell is paved with good intentions. To its credit this movie’s failings got me thinking, so I do not regret seeing it.

    I also apologize if I came off strongly. This is less a response to your particular review than to the general reactions surrounding A Serbian Film.

  • Britt Hayes says:

    There is much to discuss in terms of genre and their use of allegory. Either one agrees with it or they don’t. To me, the more violent scenes in Serbian Film didn’t feel erotic, but I don’t doubt that other people would get that impression, and some people may have even taken pleasure in viewing those images.

    Yes, I have read the FSR review, I was at SXSW with them, and I know those guys.

    Some people might disagree with you on Salo and say that it is disgusting and vile for the sake of being disgusting and vile. I wouldn’t disagree with you, but some people might. But if a film gets us debating its merits, then perhaps that film has been successful, no?

    Thanks for clarifying your feelings. For a moment I felt attacked as a critic, and you can’t blame me: there have been people voicing their opinions against Serbian Film (most of these people haven’t even seen the film) hopping from review to review, and many of them are taking personal issue with the critics who liked the film. I’m just on edge right now.

  • ArchonSatani says:

    Haven’t seen it yet. Sounds basically pornographic. I don’t buy the “angry film-makers trying to get out a message about their country” line at all. If they really cared to do so, they’d make a documentary about the sex-slave trade in Eastern Europe. Not a movie which is basically a series of extremely violent porn shoots.

    Sorry. Fail.

  • Petar says:

    Being both Serbian and an expert on extreme cinema, I believe I should give my two cents in this issue.

    First of all, I am frankly appalled by the fact that most of the reviewers(all bar one, and I read 20+ reviews) failed to give many mention of the most notorious scenes. I’ve seen very much all of the films that are considered to be among the most f-ed up ever, but they don’t come even close to the things depicted in Srpski Film, and such strong graphic acts deserve a warning of a sort(saying that “this is not a pleasant viewing” just isn’t enough… Cannibal Holocaust, Salo or the Antichrist are not pleasant viewing either, but this one raises the bar by some distance)

    Second, I believe that this movie is actually an exploitation film in two senses.

    The first sense is the usual exploitation sense; the film will go down in the history of cinema as one of the most f-ed up flicks ever and will therefore get plenty of attention from the gore lovers. In 20 years from now, it will probably be considered a cult film.

    The first sense is the exploitation of the “artsy” audience, who are loving the film due to the strength of it’s metaphors and “deeper meaning”. The reason why they can play this card is that Serbia is a very obscure country, commonly associated with the word “war”, so people just assume that most of us have gone through some seriously nasty stuff in our lives.

    The sad truth is that Serbia were the aggressor during the 90s war, and that the notorious war atrocities were committed by groups of several thousand volunteer nationalists. Most of the current population in Serbia were never in war. The only thing that happened on the territory of Serbia that comes close to a war was the NATO bombing in 1999, during which 85% of all operations were executed at Kosovo, while only military targets were aimed and destroyed at the territory of Serbia.

    Most of my friends recall the summer on 1999 as the best in their lives, as we had a five month break from school due to the bombing, but were never in any danger and spent most of our time partying, playing sports, etc – hardly a war atmosphere.

    As for the regime being repressive, it is true that our regime of the 1990s was repressive towards it’s political opponents, but Serbia was always known for it’s artistic liberties – as long as you didn’t go against the regime, they didn’t care about you too much… Not exactly the definition of a free country, but still much better than all of the countries of the Eastern Block and most of the world, while we’re at that, and the freedom of speech has become nearly absolute since the overthrow of the Milosevic regime back in 2000.

    Also, Spasojevic went to the BK University, which is an elite private school, so suggesting that he witnessed some of the poverty of the nineties is laughable.

    The poverty was the only real issue in Serbia back in the 90s, but can a baby rape be a metaphor for poverty? I don’t think so… Near one third of the world’ population doesn’t have access to a regular water supply, so, if the baby rape is a reaction to our low GDP back in the nineties, I can only imagine what “A Somalian Film” or “A Bangladesh Film” would look like.

    All in all, Spasojevic and Radosavljevic made a perfect plan to make an exploitation film.

    If you are a gore lover that wants to push the boundaries of what you’ve seen on screen so far – I suggest you watch this film.

    But if you want to see it for the “artistic value” and “the strength of it’s metaphors”, I urge you to do some research and realize that any talks about metaphors are just feeble attempts of trying to make artsy audiences open to the gore fest that this movie is.

    But do not let them fool you, there are no valid metaphors here… Just a great job of exploitation.

  • willa says:

    Petar, thanks for sharing your view on this film and its implications! The rest of this thread was also very helpful and interesting.

    What’s additionally sad to me about this film is that some of the horrors described in it happened in real life, and here in the US. I know that one girl did have all of her teeth ripped out once, as a punishment by her family when she spoke out about a family member (brother or father) raping her. She did not die from forced fellatio, though, it must be added. And then there is the news story of a mother doing such horrifying things to her infant child that it’s actually worse than being raped to death (if such horrible things can be put in a hierarchy of “which is worse”).

    Anyway, thanks again for the interesting review and discussion. The film piqued my interestv when hearing it called worse than (fill in the movie blank here). I doubt I’ll see it, though.

  • steva says:

    To Ole,i see you know nothing about serbia if you can say”Couldn’t he take a regular job like any of us ? “.people here finish colleges and still cant find a job,they wait 10,15 years for an oportunity to work for some ridicoulus salary,and that is if they are lucky

  • tara_indooi says:

    I saw it, and I wish I haven’t.
    Not because of the gore (OK, the gore, too, but I’m no stranger to such things), but because of the disgusting attempt to create a violent monstrosity and call it Serbian film, at the perfect moment when most of the world still believes we are cannibals or whatnot.
    It’s true what Ole said. This movie wouldn’t have much to do with politics had the filmmakers not overemphasized that. I live in Serbia. This is not Serbia. This is a state of mind which exists everywhere in the world. Thankfully, in a very small number of people (Yeah, there’s a psycho in everybody, but if you’ve seen this crap, you’d know this is just too much).
    Anything can be called art. This is art of… shock? This movie screams out “I’m so cool, I’m violent”. It’s pointless and has no value other than the amount of shock in it.
    Generally Serbian cinema, whatever the genre, has a tendency to make us look like pathetic morons whining about our past. Imagine that, a rough past. Like the rest of the world was created yesterday and had been living in a state of nirvana for the time.
    And the filmmakers are exactly those people who see nothing grander than struggles back when.
    Not that there haven’t been any struggles, it’s just that there’s a broad specter of other things you can have on your mind. And not be a pathetic loser.

  • marko94 says:

    this movie is not serbia… serbia is something elese and i am happy i am living there because serbia is a place to go out and have fun 24…7!!!!!! and not rape people!!!

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