Upon its debut on the art film circuit, the film received substantial attention for its graphic depictions of rape, necrophilia and child sexual abuse. The Serbian state investigated the film for crime against sexual morals and crime related to the protection of minors. The film has been banned in Spain, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, Norway, and South Korea, and was temporarily banned from screening in Brazil.
Semi-retired porn star Miloš lives with his wife, Marija, and six-year-old son, Petar. His brother, Marko, a corrupt police officer, is attracted to Marija and is jealous of Miloš's sexual prowess. Marija is curious about her husband's past and is concerned about the family's income. Lejla, a former co-star, offers Miloš a starring role in an art film directed by Vukmir, an independent pornographer, who wishes to cast Miloš for his powerful erection. Having already caught Petar watching one of his films and unaware of the details of Vukmir's film, Miloš is hesitant to participate and continue his career, but accepts to secure his family's financial future. While meeting Vukmir, Miloš passes a bald man and his entourage, regarding them warily.
Filming begins at an orphanage, where Vukmir feeds Miloš instructions through an earpiece given by Vukmir's driver, Raša, while a film crew follows him. Miloš sees a young girl, Jeca, physically abused and scolded by her mother, who has disgraced her deceased war hero husband's memory by becoming a prostitute. In a dark room, screens show Jeca seductively eating an ice pop, while Miloš is fellated by a nurse. Then, Miloš is instructed to receive fellatio from the mother, while Jeca watches. Miloš refuses, but is forced to continue. Marko later informs him that Vukmir is a former psychologist and has worked in children's television and state security. Miloš meets with Vukmir, announcing that he is retiring and dropping out of the film, but Vukmir explains to a hesitant Miloš his artistic style of pornography, showing a film of a woman giving birth to a newborn baby, which is then immediately raped by Raša. The disgusted and horrified Miloš storms out and drives away as Vukmir boasts to him that this is "a new genre" and that he terms it as "newborn porn". At a road junction, being in a disturbed state of mind, he is approached and seduced by an attractive woman who, unbeknownst to him, is Vukmir's female doctor.
A bloodied Miloš wakes up in his bed the next morning with no memory of what has happened. He returns to the now abandoned set and finds a number of tapes. Viewing them, Miloš discovers that he was drugged to induce an aggressive, sexually aroused, and suggestible state. At Vukmir's manipulative direction, Miloš beat and decapitated Jeca's mother while raping her and was later raped by one of the guards. He then watches footage of Lejla voicing concern for Miloš to Vukmir, stating that she is quitting and taking Miloš with her. A bloodied Lejla is then shown restrained, with a blood puddle and several teeth in the floor right in front of her. A masked man appears and she is forced to fellate him, suffocating her to death. The footage continues as Miloš is led to Jeca's home, where an elderly woman praises him for killing Jeca's mother, laments about Jeca's father dying before he "made her a woman", and offers Jeca as a "virgin commune". Miloš refuses, threatens to cut off his penis with a knife, and escapes through a window. After wandering the streets for a while, he ends up huddling in an alleyway, where he watches as a teenage girl passes by while being tailed by a pair of thugs. He begins masturbating and is assaulted by the thugs before they are killed by Raša, who along with Vukmir takes Miloš to a warehouse.
At the warehouse, Vukmir's doctor administers more drugs to Miloš, who in an angry outburst sticks a syringe into her neck, rendering her unconscious from the overdose. He is then taken into a big room, where he is conducted to have intercourse with two hidden bodies placed under sheets and with bags on their heads. Miloš furiously begins penetrating them while keeping them restrained, and as he swaps from one onto the other, the masked man from Lejla's film enters and begins raping the first. Vukmir then reveals the masked man to be Marko, his victim to be Marija, and finally, that Miloš is raping Petar. At this moment, the agonizing female doctor enters the room, with her crotch entirely covered in blood and a bloody pipe on her hand, attracting everyone's attention before collapsing dead. Snapping, an enraged Miloš lunges at Vukmir and repeatedly smashes his head against the floor, initiating a brawl during which Marija bites off a piece of Marko's neck, then bludgeons him to death with a sculpture. Miloš wrestles with the guards and seizes one of their guns, shooting both of them and injuring the one-eyed Raša, whom he kills by ramming his erect penis into his empty eye socket. During all of this, a dying Vukmir praises Miloš's actions as truly worthy of cinema.
Miloš, having recalled his actions up to that point, including locking his wife and son in their basement before passing out earlier, smashes Marko's head with the sculpture in a fit of impotence and despair, before returning home to find both of them in shock, with Petar totally unresponsive. After coping with the matter for hours, Miloš and his wife ultimately agree, in silence, that they and their son should die together, so the three gather in bed and embrace before Miloš fires a fatal shot through himself, Petar and Marija. Sometime later, a new film crew, including the bald man from the beginning of the film, is shown recording in the bedroom. One of the security guards begins to unzip his pants and the director, the unnamed bald man, advises him to "start with the little one".
Spasojević and Radivojević, have stated that the film is a parody of modern politically correct films made in Serbia, which are financially supported by foreign funds. When asked why they chose the title 'Srpski Film' for the film's name, Radivojević answered, "We have become synonyms for chaos and lunacy. The title is a cynical reference to that image. Srpski Film is also a metaphor for our national cinema — boring, predictable and altogether unintentionally hilarious which throughout our film to some extent is commented on and subtly parodied." Similarly, Radivojević describes Serbian cinema as "...pathetic state financed films made by people who have no sense or connection to film, but are strongly supported by foreign funds. Quality of the film is not their concern, only the bureaucratic upholding of the rule book on political correctness."
According to Spasojević, the character of Vukmir is "an exaggerated representation of the new European film order ... In Eastern Europe, you cannot get your film financed unless you have a barefoot girl who cries on the streets, or some story about war victims in our region ... the Western world has lost feelings, so they're searching for false ones, they want to buy feelings."
In another interview Spasojević is quoted as saying the film "denounces the fascism of political correctness." Questioned by the Croatian media on whether the violence depicted deals with crimes committed by Serbian soldiers during the Yugoslav Wars, Spasojević answered, "'Srpski Film' does not touch upon war themes, but in a metaphorical way deals with the consequences of postwar society and a man that is exploited to the extreme in the name of securing the survival of his family."
The first ever showing of A Serbian Film took place on 15 March 2010 at midnight in Austin as part of the 2010 South by Southwest. During the introduction by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema's owner Tim League, the audience in the theater was once again warned about the extreme nature of the scenes they were about to see and given one last chance to leave the screening. He also coaxed a handful of audience members to join him on the stage — where they jointly snorted lines of salt, squeezed lime juice into their eyes and took shots of tequila in order to "understand what Serbians have been through to create a culture of A Serbian Film". The following day, the film played once more.
Next was the screening at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film in April.
On 11 June 2010, the film screened in Serbia as part of the Cinema City festival in Novi Sad.
The film was run on 16–19 July 2010 during the Fantasia Festival in Montreal as part of the Subversive Serbia program.
The film was due to screen on 29 August 2010 at the Film Four FrightFest in London, UK but was pulled by the organizers following the intervention of Westminster Council. Films shown at this festival are usually shown pre-certificate but in this case Westminster Council refused to grant permission for its exhibition until it had been classified by the BBFC. Following its DVD submission to the BBFC (there were no theatrical materials available in the time frame requested for a proper theatrical classification), 49 cuts totaling four minutes and eleven seconds were requested for DVD certification. The UK distributor, Revolver Entertainment, initially looked into the possibilities of the process, but it became clear that the film would then have to be resubmitted to the BBFC and further cuts may then have been required. It was decided that to show a heavily edited version was not in the spirit of the festival and consequently its exhibition was pulled from the schedule. The film was replaced at the festival by Rodrigo Cortés' Buried starring Ryan Reynolds.
The Raindance Film Festival, that picked up the film at the Cannes Film Festival in May, subsequently held the UK premiere and "found a way around the ban by billing the screening as a 'private event'". The Sun tabloid described the film as 'sick' and 'vile' following the festival's 2010 Press Launch and Westminster Council requested to monitor the invitations to the screening. The 35mm print was shipped from the BBFC for the 8 October 2010 premiere.
On 21 October 2010, the film had a single screening at Toronto's Bloor Cinema. It took place as part of the monthly event called Cinemacabre Movie Nights organized by the Rue Morgue magazine. The publication also spotlighted the film and featured it on its cover.
On 26 November 2010, the film was refused classification by the Australian Classification Board, banning sales and public showings of the film in Australia. However, on 5 April 2011, the Australian Classification Board approved a censored version of the film. Later in 2011, the censored version was also re-refused classification after review.
On 12 and 16 July 2011, the film was screened at FANTASPOA in Porto Alegre, Brazil and at least at one other film festival in the country, before being banned just before a screening in Rio de Janeiro. Initially the ban applied only in Rio, but afterwards the decision became valid throughout the country, pending further judgement of the film.
On March 2011, A Serbian Film won the Special Jury Prize in the 31st edition of Fantasporto, Portugal's biggest film festival, in Porto.
On 24 September 2010, A Serbian Film was released uncensored (104 minutes) in Serbian theaters, with screening times scheduled late at night.
The film had a limited release in UK theaters on 10 December 2010 in the edited form (99 minutes), with four minutes and eleven seconds of its original content removed by the British Board of Film Classification due to "elements of sexual violence that tend to eroticize or endorse sexual violence." A Serbian Film thus became the most censored cinema release in Britain since the 1994 Indian film Nammavar that had five minutes and eight seconds of its violent content removed.
The film had a limited release in the United States on 6 May 2011, edited to 98 minutes with an NC-17 rating. It was released on VOD at the website FlixFling on the same day, except only slightly edited to 103 minutes.
The film's North American DVD and Blu-ray release was on 25 October 2011 through Invincible Pictures. Netflix has refused to carry the film as well as wholesale outlets Ingram and VPD. It is available on demand at FlixFling.com.
Through Invincible Pictures, a limited edition uncut version was released via DVD on 22 May 2012. Tom Ashley, CEO of the distribution company, had this to say, "Of course we would have preferred an uncut release last year. Unfortunately, the charges brought against Mr. Sala [director of the Sitges Film Festival] were something we had to seriously factor into that release. Now that those charges have been dropped, we can bring A Serbian Film to its fans as its director had intended."
In September 2011, without any official explanation, Netflix removed the film from their list of titles available for viewing, and from their in-site search results. It remains available in uncensored form on other major online DVD sites.
A Serbian Film was banned by a court in San Sebastián, Spain for "threatening sexual freedom" and thus could not be shown in the XXI Semana de Cine Fantástico y de Terror (21st Horror and Fantasy Film Festival). The film was shown at an adults-only screening at the Spanish Sitges Film Festival during October 2010. As a result, the festival's director Ángel Sala was charged with exhibiting child pornography by the Spanish prosecutor who decided to take action in May 2011 after receiving a complaint from a Roman Catholic organization over a pair of scenes involving the rapes of a young child and a newborn. The charges were later dropped.
Upon initial release, the FSK (German motion picture rating organisation) ordered that the film be refused classification due to concerns that the content may violate German federal law.
On 30 June 2011, a version was allowed with 13 minutes cut, and was rated "No release to youths" (released to age 18 or older, German: Keine Jugendfreigabe).
The film was banned in Norway after two months of sales as it was found to be in violation of criminal law (namely sections 204a and 382, which deal with the sexual representation of children and extreme violence).
The film was temporarily banned for screening in Brazil. Although the film was given a "not recommended for those under the age of 18, due to depictions of sex, pedophilia, violence and cruelty" rating by the Dejus, a legal decision banned it temporarily due to its content "offending the government of Brazil". This was the first time a film was banned in Brazil since the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution. On 5 July 2012, this decision was overturned.
The uncut version and a second version with 2 minutes cut were refused classification before a third version with 3 minutes and 55 seconds cut was passed with an R18+ classification.
Before its release, major Australian DVD retailer JB Hi-Fi announced that they would not be distributing the film, either online or in physical stores. They attributed this to the "Disturbing content of the film" and to a disagreement with the (then) R18+ rating. However, the film was available from this retailer for a time.
It was refused classification and thus effectively banned in South Australia just days before its release date.
On 19 September 2011, the Australian Classification Review Board also rated the film "Refused Classification", effectively banning the film from distribution Australia-wide.
According to the Review Board, "A Serbian Film could not be accommodated within the R18+ classification as the level of depictions of sexual violence, themes of incest, and depictions of child sexual abuse in the film has an impact which is very high and not justified by context."
Accordingly, the film is banned in Australia.
On 25 May 2012, the film was banned outright by the New Zealand Office of Film & Literature Classification.
On 24 August 2012, the film was rejected and banned without question by the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia.
On 24 August 2012, the same day, it was banned in Singapore due to its content being "likely to cause controversy in Singapore".
The film was released to great controversy over its portrayal of sexual violence. Spasojević has responded to the controversy with "This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government... It's about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don't want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it's about."
While acknowledging some level of conservatism among the public and theater owners, Spasojević says that government enforced censorship in Serbia is non-existent and was not the driving force behind the making of 'A Serbian Film' : "In Serbia we don't have ratings, there is no law forbidding anything from being shown in a film and there is no law forbidding anyone from buying a ticket."
Blic's Milan Vlajčić penned a middle-of-the-road review, praising the direction, technical aspects, "effective iconography", and "video game pacing" while saying that the film was taken to the edges of self-parody.
Đorđe Bajić and Zoran Janković of the web magazine Popboks gave the film a highly affirmative review, summing it up as "the dark Grand Guignol that shreds its celluloid victims with unconcealed intensity while showing in full color and detail, the collapse of the last bastions of decency, morality, and rationality" and concluding that "it has a lot to say outside of the mere and unrestrained exploitation."
In an interview, Serbian actor and film director Dragan Bjelogrlić criticized the film: "Shallow and plain wrong — sum up my feelings about this movie. I have a problem with A Serbian Film. Its director in particular. I've got a serious problem with the boy whose father got wealthy during the 1990s — nothing against making money, but I know how money was made in Serbia during the 1990s — and then pays for his son's education abroad and eventually the kid comes back to Serbia to film his view of the country using his dad's money and even calls the whole thing A Serbian Film. To me that's a metaphor for something unacceptable. The second generation comes back to the country and using the money that was robbed from the people of Serbia, smears the very same people by portraying them as the worst scum of the earth. You know, when the first generation of the Rockefellers finished robbing America, the second one built museums, galleries, charitable organizations, and financed America. But in Serbia we're seeing every segment of society continually being taken apart and for me this movie is a paradigm of that. I've never met this kid and I really don't want to since that meeting wouldn't be pleasant at all."
Based on 29 reviews collected by the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 45% of critics gave A Serbian Film a positive review, with an average rating of 5.1 out of 10.
A. O. Scott of the New York Times wrote in his review, "At first glance—and few are likely to dare a second—it belongs in the high-concept shock-horror tradition whose most recent and notorious specimen is probably The Human Centipede. As is often the case with movies like this, A Serbian Film revels in its sheer inventive awfulness and dares the viewer to find a more serious layer of meaning."
Karina Longworth of the Village Voice called the film "a passionate argument against a no-holds-barred exploration of extreme human sexuality and violence" and referred to the film's supposed commentary on the sad state of post-Milošević Serbian society as "specious lip service." She concludes: "That this film exists at all is a more cogent commentary on the nation's collective trauma than any of the direct statements or potential metaphors contained within."
Scott Weinberg wrote "I think the film is tragic, sickening, disturbing, twisted, absurd, infuriated, and actually quite intelligent. There are those who will be unable (or unwilling) to decipher even the most basic of 'messages' buried within A Serbian Film, but I believe it's one of the most legitimately fascinating films I've ever seen. I admire and detest it at the same time. And I will never watch it again. Ever."
Alison Willmore wrote that "Movies can use transgressive topics and imagery toward great artistic resonance. They can also just use them for pure shock/novelty/boundary-pushing, which is where I'd group Serbian Film. That it comes from a country that's spent decades deep in violent conflict, civil unrest, corruption and ethnic tensions makes it tempting to read more into the film than I think it actually offers—ultimately, it has as much to say about its country of origin as [Eli Roth's] Hostel does about America, which is a little, but nothing on the scale its title suggests."
Ain't It Cool News' Harry Knowles lists it in his Top 10 films of 2010, stating "This is a fantastic, brilliant film – that given time, will eventually outgrow the absurd reactions of people that think it is a far harder film than it actually is."
Time Out New York's Joshua Rothkopf accuses A Serbian Film of pandering to "mouth-breathing gorehounds who found Hostel a bit too soft (i.e., fanatics who would hijack the horror genre into extremity because deeper thinking is too hard)" before concluding that "the movie says as much about Eastern Europe as Twilight does about the Pacific Northwest."
Tim Anderson of horror review site Bloody Disgusting strongly discouraged anyone from ever viewing the film writing, "If what I have written here is enough to turn your feelings of wonder into a burning desire to watch this monstrosity, then perhaps I haven't been clear enough. You don't want to see Serbian Film. You just think you do."
In his very negative review of A Serbian Film, BBC Radio 5 Live's Mark Kermode called it a "nasty piece of exploitation trash in the mould of Jörg Buttgereit and Ruggero Deodato", going on to add that "if it is somehow an allegory of Serbian family and Serbian politics then the allegory gets lost amidst the increasingly stupid splatter." Furthermore, he mentioned A Serbian Film again in his review of Fred: The Movie, pairing the two as his least favorite viewing experiences of the year.
Calum Waddell of Total Sci-Fi in a negative review took issue with the filmmakers' statements that their film says something about the politics of Serbia, writing, "if you want to learn about Serbia, chances are, you won't be watching a movie whose main claim to fame is that a man rapes a newborn baby", before concluding that "Srđan Spasojević will go to his grave being known as the guy who filmed a grown man having sex with a baby. And that's something that – despite all of the money, attention and champagne parties at Cannes – I would never want on my conscience. Good luck to him in regaining some humanity."
Total Film awarded the film two stars out of five, finding the film's shock hype not to be fully deserved: "...a film that was slightly silly and none-too-distressing to begin with. Works best as a reflection on modern day porn's obsession with masochism and humiliation."