There has always been an intrinsic link between violence and entertainment, in ancient Rome gladiators would fight to the death to the rapturous response of spectators. Violence has been portrayed in novels, poems, plays and paintings and since the advent of cinema it has been depicted and acted out of the Silver Screen. The inclusion of violence in film is however for a variety of reason an inevitably controversial one. Firstly there is the issue of degree; what is excessive to one audience member may well be acceptable to countless others, secondly the moral argument; it is an inescapable truth that violence occurs in the real world, but does this mean it should be reflected on the cinema screen? Thirdly there is the issue of context, how is violence used within the film? In some instances it seems to be used only for sensationalism whilst in others it seems to play an integral role; the story can not be told without an exposition of violence. In the case of many films sensationalised violence is an integral part of the film, violence is the story. This links back to the subjective nature of the viewing experience, one persons integral is another’s gratuitous. There is also the issue of overt and covert violence; the collateral damage caused for example in the set piece car chases of the action genre is generally considered more acceptable than seeing one individual tortured and killed in a horror movie, although the results of the former could easily be argued to be more far reaching.
I am personally a fan of films from both the horror and thriller genres, which by there very nature often contain high degrees of violence and in the case of many horror movies, graphic and bloody violence. I am throwing around that term an awful lot, violence, violence, violence and I think that it is important to note that that one word can be used to encompass an enormous range of behaviours. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage or kill”, this seems to me to be a very narrow characterisation of the term but at the same time, hurt and kill are worlds apart. Violence can be physical, but it can also be physiological or even sociological. It can be an act, but the threat of an act can be equally damaging. It can be an immediate action, but it can also be a social condition such as racism or homophobia. If the many synonyms for the word are taken into account for example cruelty, destruction, attack and terrorism then the vast nature of the term begins to become apparent. Still this explanation is limited because behind any attempt to explain violence is an extremely complex social and cultural framework which decides when a behaviour or act should be classified as violence, and when it should not. In the not so distant past domestic violence was just reprimanding a disobedient spouse, hell in the not so distant past slavery was accepted. The permissability of a forceful action is intrinsically bound to an ever shifting set of social and cultural morals, when it comes to violence the waters are nothing if not muddy.
And now to the point of this blog, I watched A Serbian Film. A friend of mine commented that he heard that after you have seen it you are not quite the same again, and whilst that seems like a somewhat over dramatic statement it has been a couple of weeks since I watched it and it is certainly a film which has stayed with me. It didn’t have a theatrical release in the UK so it’s existence may well have passed you by, in order to explain why it is so shocking various key plot points have to be revealed so if there is a chance you are going to watch it for yourself beware of the spoilers below.
****** Spoiler Alert ******
The premise of the film is that retired porn star Milos is trying to live a normal life with his wife and young son against the backdrop of a turbulent Serbia. He is approached by a former co-star Layla who brings with her an offer, one more film, something different, an “art film” and an end to his financial worries for life. Whilst wary about the project Milos consents to meet with the films director Vukmir and apprehensively accepts the offer. The opening 20 minutes act as a comendium of Milos’s best bits from his porn star heyday, tapes of him banging over inflated blondes and leather clad biker chicks very “Now That’s what I call Porn – 1980”. As Milos enters the the world of reality porn things quickly change. This film takes violence, and specifically sexual violence to a new extreme; it contains necrophilia, pedophilia, incest, rape, snuff; basically your worst nightmares and things you couldn’t even begin to imagine are realised within this film.
Despite this a lot of the scenes are nothing that haven’t been seen before in films such as Salo, A Clockwork Orange and Antichrist from the exploitative vein and even Joel Schumacher’s mainstream thriller 8mm. The real bone of contention with A Serbian Film is a scene which really only lasts a few seconds but has rarely made it past the censors and even led to the prosecution of the director of a Spanish film festival which dared to screen it. This scene is inexcusably vile, the rape of a newborn baby, or “Newborn Porn” as it is described, and I’m not going to try to offer any defense for it. The films writers attempt to contextualise it through the words of Vukmir ““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.” In short, the Serbian people are metaphorically raped from birth to death so why not show it? In my opinion however the scene is purely a shock tactic and without it this argument would have carried a greater validity. A film which could have delivered a powerful social commentary, albeit from a torture porn perspective, will now purely be held up as an example of the worst kind of onscreen depravity.
This said A Serbian Film is an incredibly well made film. For the horror contained within it’s frames the cinematography is excellent, the score is agitating and industrial, perfectly in tune with the film itself and it contains in a fucked up way, moments of real beauty. Towards the climax of the film, it also contains one of the most ridiculously amazing moments ever captured on film when Milos kills one of the film makers (now his captors), the perpetrator of the baby rape, by forcing his erect penis through aforementioned rapists eyeless orbit. Frankly I think this scene should be in all films, Disney you’re missing a trick.