The word "favorite" implies (in the popular imagination at least) something enjoyable or pleasant. As a result, my choice of favorite film is something of a misnomer as Srdjan Spasojevic's A Serbian Film (2010) is not enjoyable in this traditional sense. I choose it as it is the film that makes me think and indeed wonder at the capacity of cinema. I love it because it makes me feel. A Serbian Film is the story of a fading male porn star who is dragged into a world of taboo film making on the promise of an idealized freedom for his family. It is hardly the stuff of Disney or even a well-loved, hallowed horror. In truth, I don’t give a rat’s arse about A Serbian Film's supposed allegory of life in Serbia. I’m interested in the human story. I want to know what Milos feels. The sheer damn nastiness of this film is what I love about it - it brutalises your senses visually, empathetically and intellectually every second that you don't press the "off" button.
The most obvious strength for me is Srdjan Todorovic's acting as Milos. Without his performance, the film could easily have dissolved into tawdry torture porn. I use the phrase on purpose as I believe that this sub-genre, if done well, can be bloody harrowing and tantalizing, as it is here. Alternatively, torture without emotional impact means nothing as the ghost flits the machine and we lose grip of aesthetic understanding of pain and are unable to contextualize it. Todorovic manages to convey incredible sexual aggression in the same breath as horror and absolute disgust at his own actions. His snarl, used on so many of the posters is, to me, the epitome of the film. It’s not a demonstration of emotions as much as a simple fact of a maelstrom of confused sensations and wants. He even looks perfect for the part in the eyes of many traditions, a classic hero with a chiseled jaw and a mane of golden hair rendered raging against gradually going to seed, a He-Man going hollow.
However, Todorovic on his own wouldn’t make the film what it is. The cinematography is in some places stunning. The scenes with son Petar are beautifully lit and lend a sense of hope to the narrative, taking it beyond the realms of pure horror into life in all of its shades. It really does remind you of balmy days where you try and feel at ease and try to enjoy having the sun on your skin yet have those inevitable close-but-awkward conversations. Nevertheless, this genuine attempt at tenderness is for me the vital counterpoint to the brutality. My favorite scene shows Milos, the human animal, enacting and enthralled in the orders of his director and following what he believes is the folk tradition of his land. What happens next is devastating and delicious all at once. It is also very erotic if - and until - you let yourself go.
As my students have said, you cannot 'unsee' or forget this film. I defy anyone to be left untouched at the end. It is the feeling of being altered and your body just taking over – what I really think terrifies and tantalizes us all.
Dr. Karen Oughton
Dr. Karen Oughton is a Lecturer in Media Communications at Regent's College, London. You can follow her on twitter here.