A striking talent revealed, albeit in a film that doesn't fully satisfy.



Technically this film by Ivan Ostrochovský is very impressive and I should immediately stress that that aspect extends to fine craftsmanship and to a real sense of style. This is a deliberately austere work set mainly inside a Catholic seminary in Bratislava and it takes place in the year 1980 when Czechoslovakia was under the control of a totalitarian regime. These Communist rulers were intent on finding clericals willing to collaborate, to become in effect servants of the state as ruled by them. We see in the early stages of the film how the dean in charge (Vladimír Strnisko) is supporting them and how an agent of state security, Dr Ivan (Vlad Ivanov), brings pressure to bear on another key figure in the seminary, the man designated as the Spiritual (Milan Mikulčík) and whose function involves acting as confessor for those who are training there to become priests. Apart from a brief preview of oppression to come, the film gets going by showing the arrival of two new seminarians who become the film's central characters, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovič).


The narrative that follows shows how these two young men are conflicted. Expected to conform, they nevertheless endorse the papal view that the Church should not become aligned with any political group (this being a step that they even conceal from each other). A related issue is found in supporting a hunger strike in the seminary when instructions are given that make it mandatory for all to attend a conference set up by Pacem in Terris, this being a body of clerical collaborators. Yet as soon becomes apparent these youngsters find themselves endangered if their support for the opposition becomes known.


The central figures in Servants live in a sealed-off world that is aptly depicted in an austere and stark manner. Ostrochovský opts for the old enclosed ratio of 1.37:1 and the film is quite superbly photographed in black and white by Juraj Chlpík capturing perfectly the bleakness of the setting. As a chilling portrait of domination, this film is certainly effective, but one can be left asking why it seemed important to the filmmakers to go back in time to this old history. It could be that we are being invited to find parallels with other situations but time and place are so vividly evoked that they work against that. Furthermore, there is something cold about the film itself: it may be concerned with the fate of Juraj and Michal but they are never portrayed with the degree of individuality that would make us feel any deep emotional involvement on a personal level.


For that matter, with the regime in the seminary at times echoing the harshness of the Communist authorities, the film never offers any clear viewpoint regarding its stance on Catholicism. Meanwhile, the fact that the world depicted contains threats, blackmail and even violent deaths leads to the use of a music score that is too self-conscious in marking up menace for it to fit readily with the general tone of the picture (a switch to Bach over the end credits is unexpected and in the circumstances bizarre). At times the storytelling could be clearer but the cast are aptly chosen and as I have indicated the visual impact is very strong. There is certainly enough here of real quality to make Servants worth seeing, but for all that it never achieves a knock-out punch either thematically or emotionally.


Original title: Služobníci.




Cast: Samuel Skyva, Samuel Polakovič, Vlad Ivanov, Vladimír Strnisko, Milan Mikulčík, Tomáš Turek, Vladimír Zboron, Martin Šulik, Vladimir Obšil, Zvonko Lakčevič.


Dir Ivan Ostrochovský, Pro Ivan Ostrochovský, Albert Malinovský and Katarina Tomková, Screenplay Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Ivan Ostrochovský and Marek Leščák, from a story by Marek Leščák, Ph Juraj Chlpík, Ed Jan Daňhel, Martin Malo and Maroš Šlapeta, Music Miroslav Tóth and Christian Lolea, Costumes Katarina Holla.


Punkchart Films/Point Film/Negativ/Libra Film Productions/sentimentalfilm-AX1 Films.
80 mins. Slovak Republic/Romania/Czech Republic/Ireland. 2020. Rel: 14 May 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 15.