Serbia (2015) Dir. Pavle Vuckovic
When a film opens cold with a close-up of a female backside in tight denim shorts twerking in a nightclub you kind of get a rough idea of what to expect from the rest of it. In that respect debutant director Pavle Vuckovic doesn’t disappoint although Panama does have more to offer than wobbly female bottoms.
Clearly aimed at a younger audience, this cautionary tale of cyber stalking features Jovan (Slaven Doslo), an architect student returning to university after an extended break but can’t give up his promiscuous lifestyle. Jovan and his mate Milan (Milos Pjevac) are in competition to see who can score the most on a monthly basis with Jovan trailing behind.
One night at a club, Jovan meets and takes home Maja (Jovana Stojiljkovic) apparently happy with his no strings attached proposal. After an initial period of regular unconditional sex, Maja’s behaviour leads Jovan to suspect she may be hiding something from him. Noticing Maja’s movements on social media conflict with her ambiguous excuses Jovan is driven to investigate Maja further.
This is the first Serbian made film I’ve seen and I wasn’t sure what to expect, wondering if this would be low-key grimy arthouse fare like East European cinema or based on the reaction to the notorious A Serbian Film, something quite objectionable. Straight away the glossy visuals caught me by surprise, so I knew this wasn’t going to be a gritty affair so would it be hard going instead?
Actually it was very easy to get into, with the two prurient minded young braggadocios putting this on a loose parallel to many a US teen sex comedy. Their cheesy chat up lines and constant leering and head turning any time a young woman passes by bolsters this feeling but this levity is fleeting. Maja’s arrival on the scene is the early turning point leading to our first sex scene less than 10 minutes into the film.
Maja looks sweet and innocent but immediately sleeping with Jovan reveals her peccante side. At first it is teased that Maja is the clingy one when Jovan ignores a call from her while he is chatting up another girl, but he hooks up with Maja again and all copacetic. But a video on social media of Maja’s party girl friend Milica (Jelisaveta Orasanin) with Maja in the background doesn’t coincide with Maja’s claim of a humdrum life.
Lest we forget that Jovan was the one who enforced the “No strings attached” stipulate and would continue to sleep around when not seeing Maja, but for some reason she gets under his skin and when her stories conflict with the photos and videos on her social media page, Jovan wonders what she isn’t telling him.
Of course he has no right to ask anything if the relationship is “open” as agreed but Maja’s tears when he first tries to end it convinces Jovan that maybe there is something there beyond the amazing sex. It should be noted that whilst there are a few sex scenes, none are particularly explicit, with only a little bit of unnecessary roughness proving the most lurid, but not enough for an 18 rating I don’t believe.
Vuckovic’s script, co-written by Jelena Vuksanovic, tries to pose the question of hypocrisy in how the trust issue is essentially abused by both Jovan and Maja in a situation where it was mutually agreed they had no commitment to each other. I say tries as it doesn’t really present a good enough case for either party. Jovan doesn’t need to know the ins and outs of Maja’s life yet her elusive behaviour is enough to evoke curiosity in anyone.
Then there is the matter of Jovan still sowing his wild oats whilst expecting Maja to remain chaste in his absence, which shamelessly upholds this double standard in Jovan’s favour yet Milica is vilified for her licentious behaviour. The fact there is a spark between Jovan and Maja which occurs to neither to admit is the elephant in the room and could have saved the whole distrust issue from exploding, but then we wouldn’t have a story.
You would think that Vuksanovic as a woman would have pushed for more balance in this aspect of the script, and the absence of this double standard being addressed is quite surprising. Then again as the story slowly turns into a mystery concerning this not-so secret life of Maja – why have the gall to pretend to be innocent after posting the contrary evidence on the internet? – this morality issue is soon forgotten.
In all fairness the serious problem of internet stalking is a ripe concept for a film to warn young modern people for whom social media is their default mode of communication. Vuckovic could have instead explored the folly of revealing too much of ourselves online and falling victim to a truly unhinged stalker, but the idea of pretending to be something one is not whilst wilfully exposing the lie online is a fertile enough premise.
Despite this uneven focus and amoral confusion a taut drama unfolds but the final act is inexplicably rushed and to ambiguous for its own good. The feeling is the writers weren’t sure of how to end thing so they went for a borderline deus ex machina development that leaves too much unanswered, even if it does explain the film’s title.
Slaven Doslo is a popular young actor in Serbia and while he doesn’t emote too much as Jovan he does have a presence about him that will grow in years to come. Jovana Stojiljkovic on the other hand is utterly bewitching as Maja and even though the character isn’t completely defined, the performance is suitably enigmatic.
The script falls short of fulfilling its promise but the first time director’s work is confident enough to hold our interest for the duration. Panama is a commendable debut that Vuckovic should be able to build and improve upon.