The Life and Death of a Porno Gang

Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Ratings (out of five): **** 1/2

What was I expecting from this Balkans movie? Something in the way of the infamous A Serbian Film: lots of transgression and sex, adding up to mostly slick/sick exploitation. There is a lot of transgression and sex in The Life and Death of a Porno Gang, the Serbian film from writer/director Mladen Djordjevic, but by the finale of this amazing movie, it has risen so far above mere exploitation that I think the word will no longer cross your mind.

The story: a young filmmaker named Marko during the end of the reign of Slobodan Milosevic is having trouble making the kind of movies he wants while also making ends meet, and so he gets involved with a producer of porno films. For Marko this shoddy stuff is very soon too limiting in his quest for “art,” and so he uses the porn producer’s money to make his own film (a little sex, a lot of “art”) but since he can’t pay back that money, he is soon on the run.

He surfaces again, and with the help of some artist friends, puts together a theater cabaret dedicated to “real sex” and pushing envelopes. When the police – sleazy, of course, as the chief is also the porn producer’s buddy – close the cabaret down, Marko and gang take their show on the road, introducing sex (gay and straight), philosophy and art to the hinterlands. There is a light, bouncy quality to much of the film during its first third. Sure there’s a dark side (it is Serbian, after all), but Marko’s troupe is full of lively characters played by lovely actors, and their quest for truth-in-sex, while naïve, is also genuine, charming – and often pretty hot. (There are plenty of sex acts and male and female full-frontal, but I don’t think there’s any actual hard-core – unless, in a couple of scenes, those were not prosthetics.)

The-Life-and-Death-of-a-Porno-Gang

Once again, however, earning a living in this way isn’t easy. While the hinterland locals love the show, hypocritical local officials try to shut it down. One day, post-show, a well-dressed, intelligent audience member accosts Marko with a proposition that involves sex, snuff films and much better money -- but this time the “snuff” comes with a “moral” difference that might make it a little easier. Soon one boundary is crossed and then another, and while the film grows darker and sadder, it never for a moment loses touch with its humanity.

It also offers some scenes of such power, empathy and originality – about debt, death and redemption – that, while these are specific to the recent history of Serbia, they should play equally well in any territory where genocide has been practiced, or where the knowledge of the practice is known.

Among the darkest films to come out of the Balkan states (and that is saying something), The Life and Death of a Porno Gang is also one of the most original. Shot on a hand-held budget that looks something like Marko’s own filmmaking, this is one memorable movie: comic, tragic, filthy (in all sorts of manner) and inspired. As much as any Balkan film I’ve seen, it should stand as the memorial to Milosevic and Serbia -- and all that went on under that disgusting combination.

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