Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Very Serbian Holiday


So, over the recent holiday break, in an attempt to break out of the annual cycle of It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, I watched two films that I have heard a lot about, 2010's A Serbian Film and 2009's The Life and Death of a Porno Gang. To say that these films are the polar opposites of my standard holiday fare would be an epic understatement.
Where to begin...
If you read anything about either of these dark Serbian visions, then you may know what you're in store for. If you haven't heard of them, that might be for the best, since these are some of the most bleak and nihilistic movies I have experienced. Both were very slickly produced and extremely well acted, maybe a little TOO well acted in spots.
Porno Gang focuses on a young wannabe filmmaker who ends up working in the adult film industry in Serbia and finds freedom in the sexual liberation of that environment. However, he has a larger dream, he wants to create art and not just simply a marketable product. He gathers a motley group of acquaintances and they form a troupe, a Porno Gang, that travels the Serbian countryside in a van, covered with hand-drawn genitalia, putting on a live sex show for the folks in the hinterlands. The local farmers come to see the show but the leaders of each little township do not want such a corrupting force to stick around, and so the porno gang is chased out of town after town. The leader of the troupe, Marko, is approached at one point by a German who is living in Serbia, and he is offered a lot of money to help make snuff films, which the German has an apparently large market for. The setup is that, as they go to each community, the German will find people there who willingly ( sometimes eagerly ) offer themselves up to be filmed as they kill themselves ( or are killed ). Each of these people has a story about why it would be better for them to die than to continue living, so Marko and his cohorts agree and the viewer is treated to several brutal scenes. I know what you're thinking, this sounds like ideal Christmas fare, but wait, it's at this point that things turn from bad to worse, eventually slipping all the way over into totally f-ed up.
The Life and Death of a Porno Gang was not simply an exploitation film, I think there was truly something being said about the state of life in Serbia. These hopeful miscreants were truly trying to do something different and beautiful, to spread a sexual enlightenment through the backwards countryside. It was as though they wanted to instigate a 60's-style sexual revolution through their presentations. At each turn though, their dreams were stifled by the repressive religious and cultural forces in each township. It is during this moment of seeming defeat that "big business" steps in, waving money around and promising to make everything ok. What ends up happening is that these idealistic upstarts sacrifice themselves and their countrymen for the prurient desires of the rest of the decadent world, until, at the end, there is only one, final, ultimate way out.
I felt like there was only one way to follow up on Porno Gang, so I finally watched the copy of "A Serbian Film" that I had been keeping at arms length for at least a month. There has been much written of the scenes of depravity and violence that are on display in this film. I, and maybe you do too, already knew what I was going to be shown, and it really was worse in my mind than it ended up being in the actual film itself. I am not going to try to act tough here though, even knowing what was coming, I was shocked, even sickened by what was shown. There were certain moments, little revelations, that I am likely to remember forever. The production values are really top-notch, the acting and writing all ring true, the music set the perfect tone throughout, and the special effects were far too believable at times.
The story, which has been recounted several times online, is of Milos, a legendary, semi-retired porn actor in Serbia who is married and the father of precious little boy. He is trying to get by on his savings from his days as an "Artist of F--k". Much like the characters in Porno Gang, he is approached by a wealthy filmmaker who offers a huge amount of money to Milos to make "just one more film", promising him that he and his family will have enough money to take care of his son through his old age. Milos, being a devoted family man, reluctantly agrees and the film begins it's spiraling descent into darkness. Again similarly to Porno Gang, this film that is being made is a sexually violent snuff film with artistic trappings. Milos resists at first, not comfortable with some of the scenarios he is forced into. It is at this point that the unsavory filmmaker subjects Milos to injections of a horse aphrodisiac which turns him into a slavering, unthinking beast who wants only to fulfill his sexual cravings. During this phase of the movie, Milos awakens in a daze, with several days missing in his mind. He returns home to find his wife and young son missing, and he returns to the locations where the snuff film was being shot, in search of them and of answers to the missing time. This is the most "movie" moment in the film, with Milos discovering tapes of what had transpired and seeing the depths he had sunk to in his drug-induced haze.
If you've read as much as I have about this movie, then you know several of the key scenes, and yes they do happen, and yes they are shocking, but the visuals aren't as graphic or shocking as they could've been ( thankfully! ). It is the ideas of these situations that are truly horrifying and soul-crushing. Once again, though, this is not just pure exploitation. Some have argued that the filmmakers have tried to assign meaning to the events portrayed in the film after-the-fact, but I would disagree with this assertion. Director Srdjan Spasojevic clearly had a vision of what he wanted this movie to say, and it is far to beautifully constructed for me to think that his goal was simply to throw sex and violence on the screen. Is it a moral statement on the porn industry, saying that it leads to only violence and the destruction of lives on every level? Is it an allegorical tale about Serbia as a country, and how it tried to climb out of a dark period, lured by promises of wealth, only to have the truth of the situation bring everything crashing down. There is much to chew on here, but there will not be many people who can make it all the way through "A Serbian Film" much less ruminate about its true meaning after the fact.
Of the two films, A Serbian Film was for more slick and shiny, with an obviously higher budget. I had heard so much about this movie that I think it served to diminish its impact significantly. I was prepared for much worse than I was given. Porno Gang, on the other hand, was something I was much less familiar with, and I expected much less emotional impact from it, and it was the emotional aspects which really delivered the most vicious blows and left me shaking at the end. Perhaps this is what happens when you come into a film with so many preloaded expectations. If you are someone who, like me, tends towards the transgressive, these are two films that must be seen, if for nothing else than to put a couple more notches in your belt. Christmas 2010 will be my Serbian Christmas I suppose, and it left me with more than visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.
-Marty

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