Life and Death of a Porno Gang, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/28/10 17:46:47

"The OTHER Serbian porn and death movie of the moment."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2010 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: Well, I can't say that I got anything less than could be expected from that title, can I? It's right there - life, death, people making porn, far more direct than its somewhat more infamous cousin, "A Serbian Film". So, if you're squeamish, you've been warned. It may do you some good to check it out anyway, though - it's ugly and raw and depraved, and the occasional reminder that this is the only somewhat amplified reality of everyday life in some parts of the world is kind of healthy.

Marko (Mihajlo Jovanovic) has graduated film school, but is having trouble getting people to finance his sci-fi/horror project. He ekes by doing commercials until he's introduced to pornographer Cane (Srdjan Miletic). Marko gets comfortable in porn, but soon winds up over budget and behind schedule with Cane, and to raise money to pay him back, he and his girlfriend Una (Ana Jovanovic) come up with the idea of live porno cabaret. Cane gets his cop brother to shut them down, so they and a half-dozen friends take the show on the road, making their money back by pitching their tent in various villages - and, on the side, making the occasional snuff film.

This is, in case you haven't guessed, a bleak movie about a bleak place. In the Q&A after the screening, the director of photography mentioned that most of the stories told to demonstrate why characters would volunteer for snuff films to give some small benefit to their family are based on actual events; they are matter-of-fact litanies of horror and despair. Drug use and disease are rampant.

And yet, The Life and Death of a Porno Gang is not a numbing, continuous litany of misery. No, it is in some ways both more balanced and far crueler than that. There's humor to it, especially in the first half, such as when we see Marko daydreaming about the porn epic he would like to create, and love, both new and lasting. The group's painted van encourages us to see them as latter-day hippies espousing free love, and the characters don't spend a lot of time pontificating on the source of their harsh circumstances or talking politics; they just get from one day to the next as best they can. The horror comes in violent, concentrated jolts as explicit as the sex, that each leave a deeper sense of sorrow and despair behind, a sucking morass from which there may be no escape.

Writer/director Mladen Djordjevic doesn't just rely on shock value and the inherent gravity of the situation, though. Though his film has some problems - there are too many characters, and the story spins its wheels for a bit before springing its first big shock on the audience - he and his crew make the most of a small budget. Though we're initially brought into the film by the device of it being Marko's video diary, it clearly isn't all diary footage; there's scenes where we see his camera and others where the film cuts between multiple angles. Djordjevic eases us out of this slowly, though, and even though the entire film has that sort of documentary aesthetic - it is all shot on hand-held cameras using available light - the fact that we can see subtle differences in the video diary footage and the rest is a tribute to the fine work of cinematographer Nemanj Jovanov. It's a well-produced and directed film, and while it often looks shabby, it never feels cheap or inauthentic.

The cast is generally excellent as well. Mihajlo Jovanovic, though clearly the star, does not attempt to outshine the ensemble. Instead, his note-perfect portrayal of Markus - which tilts flawlessly between idealism, pragmatism, and resignation - is just one of many fine performances. Next in line is Ana Jovanavic, who follows a similar path but winds up with a more persistent conscience. Unfortunately, I can't match all the actors' names to their characters, so while I can tell you that Aleksandar Gligoric and Mariana Arandjelovic are nicely understated as the married addicts who leave their children behind to travel with the cabaret, I can't say who plays the distributor of the snuff films, monstrously uncaring even for this environment. Or the soldier who confesses his sins in a haunting monologue.

"Haunting" is the word for much of "The Life and Death of a Porno Gang". It may not start with despair, but presents plenty by the time it is through, easing up on the explicit sex and violence only just enough to make us care about the characters as individuals.

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