Samuel Skyva, Samuel Polakovic, Vlad Ivanov, Milan Mikulcik, Martin Sulik
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Ivan Ostrochovsky’s (2015’s Goat) sophomore feature Servants is hypnotic as much as it is visually arresting, in this story of corruption within a theological seminary in totalitarian Czechoslovakia.
The film’s monochrome aesthetic and classic aspect ratio is reminiscent of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2014). Similarly, both films raise questions of faith in times of repression. The former, however, takes on a decidedly more sinister tone.
Set in the early 1980s, two high-school friends, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic) enter a seminary in hopes of becoming Catholic priests. As Czechoslovakian leaders demand the church’s strict obedience to Communist ideologies, students at the seminary are faced with the dark realities of a totalitarian existence.
We are made aware of this stifling formality during an exchange between two priests: “you have to understand, we’re not here to be happy”. While Michal is committed to his studies, Juraj becomes involved with the resistance in an underground church. Suspicion mounts when it is revealed that prohibited literature is being circulated at the seminary – an act that leads to shattering consequences.
Servants is neither didactic nor overtly polemical. Yet, it invites reflection on the oppressive conditions and fear permeating the Catholic Church. Much of this unease is expressed through the stark black and white cinematography, aided by the use of ominous non-diegetic sounds. Interestingly, Servants is almost entirely comprised of static shots – a technique that is impactful and further emphasises the film’s underlying tendency towards austerity. The fragmentary narrative and sparse dialogue, on the other hand, might irritate those not attuned to arthouse cinema.
Even so, it is difficult to fault Ostrochovsky’s stylistic choices in Servants. We can see that he prefers to tell the story through actions and steely gazes. These elements – combined with film-noir sensibilities and artfully composed shots – come together to intoxicating effect.