There isn’t one definitive list out there of the most disturbing films ever made and the lists that do exist vary greatly in both quality and authority. One consistency though is you’re sure to find A Serbian Film right near the top of any of them. If you don’t see it, stop reading that list immediately because this is without a doubt one of the most shocking and disturbing films of all time and once you’ve seen it you know why.
The plot of the film is actually very simple. Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) is a retired Serbian porn star who has a loving relationship with his wife and young son. Money is tight so he agrees to come out of retirement at the behest of a former colleague for a mysterious and lucrative job making one last film for a strange, shady director (Sergej Trifunovic). And then, well there’s just no other way to say this, shit gets fucked up.
Before I get into it, I have to mention that you absolutely must watch the uncut version of this film. This is a trip most people won’t take more than once (I have, of course, but then I’m not most people) so you owe it to yourself to see it exactly how it was intended. The other thing I’ll mention is that this isn’t exactly a horror film by classic definition. The intention here isn’t to scare the audience but rather to shock them with levels of sexual violence rarely seen at all on film and certainly not seen to this extent. In fact, it is described by director Srdjan Spasojevic as, “A drama that ventures down into Hell.” That being said though, the brutal, horrific nature of this film does make it sit more comfortably in the Horror genre than anywhere else.
In an age when real death clips and extreme pornography are only a click away online, it’s very hard to find a movie that is truly shocking. It’s been awhile since a film came out that felt this legitimately edgy and dangerous. Although the graphic scenes are not the primary reason that this film is so shocking; it’s so shocking because it’s so well made. Any filmmaker can throw copious amounts of gore gags at you but if they’re not realistic they merely come off as laughable. This film, on the other hand, is shot with the kind of professionalism you’d expect from an Oscar-winning Hollywood film. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and the acting and directing are pitch-fucking-perfect! This makes the actions the characters take infinitely more powerful as you are not only connected to them as characters but can’t simply dismiss the violence as a gag. It looks real.
Still, this is not the most violent film ever made. Another reason that it feels so shocking is that the violence is built up to and not over-used to the point of making the audience feel numb to it. What is truly shocking, above all else, is the sexual nature of the violence in this film. All of the most brutal moments occur in a sexual context (and are perpetrated against both females and males, by the way).
Beyond that, there is also the incredibly deviant nature of the acts themselves. Rape, necrophilia, pedophilia as well as other horrifying acts of violence that most people would never even have conceived of are all present, as though the film itself was birthed from the darkest corners of the Deep Web.
But don’t worry, it wasn’t. Everything here is, of course, simulated and that is the true genius of this film: that it can manage to be so horrifying without anything bad actually happening. This is precisely why I am not impressed by movies like Cannibal Holocaust that, while indeed bloody, earn most of their notoriety simply because they include actual animal cruelty. A Serbian Film, though, is disturbing and shocking solely because of the ideas it explores and the realities it brings to light.
What makes this such a significant and vital film is that it unflinchingly portrays the kinds of horrors that happen in the real world every day. Whether we want to think about it or not, we have to open our eyes to the fact that no matter how horrific a fictional scene in a movie might be, humans have done just as bad or worse in real life, many, many times before. (Just read the fucking news for proof of that.)
It is essential that art is allowed to provide a true reflection of society and the darkest parts of human nature that we pretend don’t exist. This is especially true in this case, as Spasojevic made this film as an artistic reaction to his feelings for his home country, one that has an exceptionally violent past. This was discussed during a 2010 interview with Rue Morgue Magazine which delved deep into the artistic intentions of this film and shed light on how it came to be (issue 106 if you want to track it down, and you should).
In conclusion, this film is a triumph of daring free expression that unabashedly displays the darkness, pain, and rage of human suffering into an essential art piece that must be experienced to be believed. An unequivocal contribution to Horror and film itself that reminds us that horror should be horrifying, and vile human acts should be presented in a way that makes us feel disturbed and repulsed rather than excited and elated.