A seminary in Cold War Czechoslovakia is the scene for a compelling second feature from Ivan Ostrochovsky
Dir/scr. Ivan Ostrochovsky. Slovak Republic/Romania/Czech Republic/Ireland. 2020. 80 mins.
Servants is set in 1980, in the thick of communist Czechoslovakia during the Cold War era; however Ivan Ostrochovsky’s (Goat) insidiously flinty, supremely assured and chillingly stylish second feature spins a story which is of utmost relevance today. Following two young seminarians caught between faith and politics as the state’s oppressive regime exerts its influence over the Catholic church, this is an unsettling rebuke of government control and ideological manipulation — as well as a sharp cry against compliance with the prevailing status quo.
Ostrochovsky styles Servants with the flair and unease of film noir, while ramping up the tension almost to horror-movie levels
Co-scripted with Rebecca Lenkeiwicz (Ida) and Marek Lescak (The Interpreter), Servants delves into a historical reality that many viewers might not be familiar with. It’s set during a time when the chuch in Czechoslovakia came under the sway of the state-sponsored Association of Catholic Clergy Pacem in Terris, whose purpose was to ensure that priests fell into line. In response and in the shadows, a devoted enclave of clergy tried to maintain their freedom, uphold their beliefs and retain contact with the Vatican. Pure political-thriller territory, it’s a real-life scenario with audience potential.
Ostrochovsky styles Servants with the flair and unease of film noir, while ramping up the tension almost to horror-movie levels. Shot in black-and-white, in Academy ratio, and with a droning, needling soundtrack, the images bristle with anxiety. Jural Chlpik’s (Little Kingdom) contrast-heavy cinematography frames the clerics and seminary students in their black cassocks, going about their business against gleaming white plaster and marble spaces. There’s no room here for shades of grey.
Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic) are two of these seminarians. From the outset, their tutors probe their allegiance to the state, becoming suspicious at even the slightest hint of individual thought and downright condemning if anyone dare skips confession. But subversion bubbles beneath the order via clandestine meetings, secret ecclesiastic texts and other once-acceptable markers of Catholicism. But balancing their religious devotion with the demands of the ever-controlling regime takes its toll on the two friends in different ways.
Making the stakes clear from the outset, Servants starts with a long drive down a gloomy road, a car stopping under a dimly lit bridge, and a body being dumped out of the trunk — a severe reminder of the ultimate cost of being caught in defiance of the state’s will. The film returns to this point earlier than expected; however it never lets the jittery mood slip. As well as meticulous visual command (reinforced by blunt, almost-jarring edits), Ostrochovsky demonstrates an impressive mastery of tone.
Also noteworthy is Servants’ cast, from first-timers Skyva and Polakovic — one more comfortable in his shoes, and with flouting the rules; the other concerned and vulnerable — to the solemn, unshakeable presence of Romanian veteran Vlad Ivanov. Chlpik’s lens already has much to focus on, but their quietly expressive faces rank high among this aesthetically poised, thematically perturbing feature’s highlights.
Production company: Punkchart films
Sales: Loco Films, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Ivan Ostrochovsky, Albert Malinovsky, Katarina Tomkova
Cinematography: Juraj Chlpik
Editing: Jan Danhel, Martin Malo, Maros Slapeta
Music: Miroslav Toth, Cristian Lolea
Main cast: Samuel Skyva, Samuel Polakovic, Vlad Ivanov, Vladimir Strnisko, Milan Mikulcik, Tomas Turek