CONTAINS SPOILERS AND DESCRIPTIONS OF SERIOUS GROTESQUERIE
It's finally here. The cinema release most heavily censored by the BBFC (admittedly, many hardcore DVDs are cut more heavily) in sixteen years, which was supposed to have played at the FrightFest back in August and has been passed with a little over four minutes of footage removed, is due for a British cinema and DVD release in its noticeably shortened version. Has the film's message been compromised? Is it still worth seeing?
This isn't really the place to go into the intricacies of the BBFC's decision making processes or the legal restrictions on what they pass or reject, although the BBFC is a completely different beast from what it was in the Ferman years, and they don't hack movies to shreds for the sake of it any more. That this particular film depicts quite astonishingly repugnant and barbaric acts of violence and sexual depravity is more an issue for the likes of the Daily Mail, who will in all probability jump up and down squeaking about how it's going to bring about the collapse of Western civilisation and the end of the British Empire, and Something Must Be Done; because that's what they do. And then - who knows? - they might even sit down and watch it.
A Serbian Film deals, on a narrative level, with Milos, a former porn legend who's now retired but facing a financially uncertain future and unsure how he's going to continue to fund his family. When he's approached by a mysterious individual named Vukmir for a new, highly lucrative pornography project to which he must commit without knowing the details in advance, he's reluctant but eventually agrees - only to walk away in disgust halfway through. Waking up some time later after being drugged, he realises he's lost the last four days of his life and as he retraces his steps with the tapes from Vukmir's omnipresent camera crew, he discovers the appalling acts he's committed and what has happened to his family....
Skip this paragraph if you don't want the details of the most contentious material. Central to the film's second half are the shock/outrage sequences, the most discussed of which occurs when Vukmir attempts to explain his project to Milos with footage of a newborn baby taken from the mother's womb and immediately raped on camera. That the scene is as obviously simulated as a George Romero zombie attack isn't really relevant - it is the content, the very concept of the scene, that hits home. In the BBFC-approved version we see almost none of the sequence, we just hear the audio and see the faces of Milos and Vukmir whereas the uncut version included footage of the rapist with a prosthetic child. Not seeing it, but knowing what's happening, and hearing the screams, makes the scene arguably more disturbing and distressing than it already was. A later sequence where Milos remembers being goaded into beating a bound woman while violently screwing her, and then being handed a machete with which he decapitates the woman, while still screwing her corpse, is still deeply upsetting even in its shortened form (apparently 45 seconds of the cuts came from this sequence). Without wanting to provide a handy checklist, the other horrors include (but are not limited to) incest, rape, child abuse and more necrophilia. And because of the film's use of children, not just as bystanders or witnesses but as active (though obviously simulated) participants in some scenes, the BBFC would probably not have been able to pass the film uncut even if they'd wanted to.
As a dramatic piece of work, A Serbian Film is certainly interesting. But it's far more interesting in the human drama of the first half than in the later sequences where it seems to genuinely be aiming for shock effect, whatever the director has to say, and there's a real sense that they are just coming up with more and more repulsive sexual activity for the sake of it. I don't believe that the Authors' Message - it's an allegorical piece about life in Serbia today; that the people are exploited and will always be exploited - is necessarily compromised by the BBFC's cuts: for one thing it's still a hideously effective film and for another the BBFC could easily have removed far more material, or indeed rejected it outright.
Whether it's an honest and fair allegory of contemporary Serbian life I really wouldn't know. I think it's an ugly film, an unpleasant film, and a film I really have no desire to see again. That's no bad thing: I don't want to see Schindler's List again either but that's not to say that these aren't well made and well intentioned films, though I do question the intentions of A Serbian Film. It is a very difficult film to watch - even in this cut version I found myself looking away in places - and I'm honestly not sure the content is entirely justified by context. You've been warned.
You can obtain this film here: