Servants (Sluzobníci)

Slovakia (2020) Dir. Ivan Ostrochovský

God is allegedly supposed to protect his servants, the ordinary folk who put their faith in him, but even the Lord Almighty himself is unable to offer them defence from corruption. We already know this, but for Catholics in 1980s Czechoslovakia would discover at their peril, God is also powerless against the rise of Communism.

In 1980, two friends in communist Czechoslovakia, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovič) enrol in a Catholic seminary, despite practicing religion being banned in the state. However, a deal has been made with a Catholic group called Pacem in Terris to allow priests to continue to practice but under the state’s strict purview, although this directly contravenes Vatican’s rules.  

Aware of the hypocrisy of the priests secretly enjoying luxuries whilst they live ascetic lives, some of the students rebel against both the school and the state by releasing news of these transgressions to the Vatican and the press at large via Radio Free Europe. Whilst the school are both scared and powerless to do anything about it, the state on the other hand is not.

Regular readers of this site (both of you) will know my stance on religion but how I find films about it fascinating if vexing. Servants is a rare beast in that it doesn’t seem interested in expressing an opinion on faith or its practices, making it palatable for the pious to watch without fear of being offended. Instead, it is a dour, moody piece on the struggle of two groups of people both wanting to be free of political oppression.

Pacem in Terris was an actual organisation. Founded in 1971 and dismantled in 1989, a proclaimed remit of bringing peace and unity to the world was a cover for their actual purpose of spying on the clergy and controlling how they taught trainee priests. The setting of this film in the early 1980s puts it around the time of Pope John Paul II’s papal decree Quidam episcopi, forbidding priests having membership to political parties.

With the seminary’s existence at stake, the Dean (Vladimír Strnisko) is a loyal member of Pacem in Terris, though the conflict of opposing the Vatican weighs heavy on him, just not enough to prevent him enjoying the fruits of his duplicity. The Dean’s point man with the State’s secret police is Dr. Ivan (Vlad Ivanov), a man who appears to live within simple means but enjoys the power he wields like it was an aphrodisiac.

The film opens with a car being followed down a dark road late one night before pulling over, and the driver getting and removing a body from the boot, which is then dumped. It then cuts to Ivan at home washing the blood from his hands and shoes – although this film is shot in monochrome, so it initially looks like dirt. A caption then informs us we are going back to 143 days earlier, to when Juraj and Michal arrive at the seminary.

Despite arriving together and sharing a room (with bunk beds which becomes horrifically relevant later on), the friends are split up by way of encouraging the students to feel comfortable mixing with others. This slowly sees the long friendship between the two suffer as they become distant from one another, in part to Juraj falling in with the rebel priests, and Michal kept away from this tacit uprising.

Sitting somewhere between the two worlds is one of the Spirituals (Milan Mikulcík), staying true to his faith, and teaching the students honestly, yet under Ivan’s control as the body from the opening was a fatality caused by the Spiritual’s drink driving. For a man of the cloth, it is amazing how the lure of verboten vodka is enough for him to park his conscience whilst feeding Ivan information.

From being filmed in black and white and presented in 4:3 picture ratio, the imagery is stark and claustrophobic, with even wide shots permeating unease and dread. A small courtyard is filmed from overhead to illustrate the compact boundaries the students move in, whilst pronouncing the gothic architecture designs as an ominous symbol of the state’s looming presence.

Heavy use of chiaroscuro creates a noir feel, complimenting the aforementioned opening scene, and moments such as when the dissident students sneak out and night to make contact with the outside world. Within the seminary, this visual dynamic exacerbates the gloom and mundanity of student’s lives; the most dangerous thing they get to do – apart from smoke – is read smuggled western literature.

Yet the lack of colour also heightens the pervasive sense something is going to happen, even when things are serene, which director Ivan Ostrochovský takes great delight in. In reality, nothing truly explosive happens, but many occasions are decidedly chilling, such as when we learn how Ivan is able to make the unruly boys “disappear”, to a tragic scene involving blood near the end. The final shot of Ivan’s lesion-infected body – the most symbolic part of the film – is Lynchian when seen through a monochrome lens.

Visual splendour aside, the film is let down by its meandering narrative and refusal, or maybe reluctance, to explore its subject with greater conviction. As suggested earlier, there is no judgement here – the Church is posited as the de facto protagonist against the communist state whist simultaneously playing oppressor to the students. And with a brisk 80-minute run time, the relationship between Juraj and Michal is only sporadically covered, rendering the initial focus as almost unnecessary.

Because of the nature of the story and the curious level of conflict surrounding its unique situation, I can’t help feel Servants could have been a stronger, more engaging film. Some will be satiated by the indisputable striking imagery, but this isn’t enough to be completely satisfied with cinema. A little more substance and a look at the human cost of this scenario would lift this eye-opening, unsettling good film to a great one.

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