Servants is showing now on Curzon Home Cinema
The year is 1980, and the Czechoslovakian communist regime is slowly tightening its grip on religious institutions. With the secret police keen to rid the country of priests who harbour underground campaigners for freedom. The state’s unchecked power clear as we see a car drive slowly to a deserted stretch of road. Here, two men unceremoniously dump the body of a priest before making it look as if he has been run over. His crime against the state unknown as the rain glistens on the tarmac; now, a grave. Within this opening scene, Servants makes clear the states need to control the Catholic Church at any cost. With one priest’s life meaningless as the government work to instil fear in the monasteries and schools the Church governs.
Within this landscape of control and coercion, we join two new young seminarians, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovič). Both boys embarking on a new journey as they join a Catholic theological school. Here, each boy supports the other as they dedicate themselves to being servants of the church. However, as they settle into the school and its rules, the boy’s sense of peace and security finds itself threatened by increasing state control. Juraj and Michal’s faith, belief, and political views challenged and changed as intrigue, murder, and oppression invade the school corridors. The very structures around them creaking as The Dean (Vladimír Strnisko) supports the state for his safety, while The Doctur (Tomáš Turek) hides his role in an underground movement. And The Spiritual (Milan Mikulčík) is caught in the middle as he is blackmailed and controlled by the state.
Shot in stark black and white in a constrained 4:3 frame, director Ivan Ostrochovský creates a sublime film noir. His drama surrounded by the shadows of paranoia and brutality as the state squeezes the life from everything surrounding it. Here, each scene feels like a prison; each conversation a stilted assessment of risk. These creative choices create a world that feels just as powerful in its silence as it does in its dialogue and exchange. The school ultimately baron of emotion as Juraj and Michal navigate its hidden depths. However, it is within the simmering tension of a rising student revolt that Servants finds its voice. Our group of young scholars passionate about the protection of religious freedom while naive to the personal sacrifices they may need to make.
Ostrochovský’s delicate yet powerful portrait of youthful rebellion vs social immaturity shines on screen. Here, silent scenes of the boys playing table tennis and awkwardly mingling in dance are intercut with secretive meetings, silent cigarette breaks and hidden rooftop encounters. Each boy, oblivious to the fact that the church and state already own them, their freedom dictated, not won in a clandestine battle. This point is only highlighted as our story ends with both boys discovering that freedom is a mere mirage.
Meanwhile, the adults dance to their own tune. Each priest held captive either through choice or necessity—those daring to fight for a church-based notion of freedom either disappearing or enlisted into the army. The state’s intervention erratic and unforeseen as surveillance lurches into murder and torture. Consequently, each adult’s choices are bound in either self-protection or a foolhardy belief in personal power—the eyes of the state surrounding every interaction and conversation.
The depth of Servants makes for a fascinating, riveting and engaging watch. The performances sublime in their complexity, the cinematography stunning in its beauty. The films final message a stark reminder that state control can and often still does trump belief. And when state and church combine in delivering this social control, the result is a society where individual identity disappears, and enforced conformity reigns supreme.