The Bible cautions Christians that they cannot serve two masters (see Matthew 6:24), but the state-sponsored Catholic organization Pacem in Terris (PiT) instructed member clergy to do exactly that in Czechoslovakia under communism. Adopting the language of the international peace movement, the ostensibly religious body was really a means for the state to monitor and dominate the Church. The underground revolt against PiT within the Catholic Church leads to profound moral dilemmas for two newly arrived seminarians in Ivan Ostrochovsky’s “Servants.”
When the provincial Juraj and Michal arrive at the Gothic-looking seminary in Bratislava (now the capital of Slovakia), they expect it to be a fortress of spirituality. That their designated spiritual adviser is an old friend of their hometown priest should bode well for them. Unfortunately, “Spiritual” (as the film simply refers to him) has completely submitted to the seminary’s dean, who is completely beholden to PiT and their Communist Party masters.
As was true throughout Czechoslovakia, there is an underground movement at the seminary protesting and resisting PiT (and the Party). It turns out that two of the seminary’s younger and more popular faculty members are deeply involved in the dissident organization. In fact, one of them even provides tips to Radio Free Europe. Inevitably, Juraj and Michal will have to decide how to respond to this clash of ethical values, just like the rest of their classmates.
It is pretty amazing to see the scandalized uproar caused by a few anonymous, typed statements posted on the seminary’s bulletin boards. In today’s short attention span era, hardly anyone would stop to read something that wasn’t bullet-pointed and illustrated with eye-catching graphics. Yet, the ideas of the unknown seminarians’ crude samizdat (publishing government-suppressed literature) are profoundly threatening to the dean, because they rely on Scripture and Christian principles to critique PiT dominance. Perhaps one positive takeaway from “Servants” is that ideas matter.
It is also a chilling depiction of the Soviet socialist era, circa 1980. Clearly, Ostrochovsky and co-screenwriters Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Mark Lescak had no illusions regarding the communist regime, judging from the cold, sinister prologue. In some ways, “Servants” also functions as a noir Cold War thriller, following “Doctor” Ivan of the secret police as he investigates the dissident underground, but the film’s elliptical structure somewhat undercuts the possible suspense, heightening the tragedy instead.
Regardless, Juraj Chlpik’s black-and-white cinematography might be the most visually striking since Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (which was lensed by Bruno Delbonnel). Indeed, the stark, shadowy imagery has a similarly disorienting effect in both films. It is a masterful period production that perfectly re-creates the gritty, worn-out analog look and textures of the socialist era.
Conversely, “Servants” is not a flashy showcase for the cast’s acting chops. It is really more about ideas and re-creating a particular place at a particular time. Samuel Skyva and Samuel Polakovic are quiet and unassuming as Juraj and Michal. Both look overwhelmed by the events surrounding them, but that rather fits the dramatic context.
However, Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov is totally chilling as the ruthless Dr. Ivan. He seems to specialize in playing the villains in Eastern European auteurist films, such as Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Corneliu Porumboiu’s “The Whistlers,” and Sergei Loznitsa’s “In the Fog,” probably because he is good at it—and that expertise nicely serves “Servants.” Yet, perhaps the most interesting performance might be Milan Mikulchik’s subtle portrayal of the sad and conflicted “Spiritual.”
There is no overheated outrage in “Servants,” but its bracingly cold depiction of Soviet socialism in Czechoslovakia could cause frost burn. The images are arresting (occasionally even hinting at the surreal), but revisiting PiT’s intrusive attempts to control the nation’s church still has relevancy today. For years, the Chinese Communist Party has demanded the power to select the spiritual leaders for Tibetan Buddhists. Throughout “Servants,” viewers can see what a deliberately corrupting impact that has on the targeted faith.
Every frame of “Servants” is a work of art to behold. Yet, even more importantly, it is a film of truly weighty substance. This is a demanding work of cinema, but it is also one of great significance. Very highly recommended, “Servants” starts streaming Friday, Feb. 25, on VOD platforms.
Director: Ivan Ostrochovsky
Stars: Samuel Skyva, Samuel Polakovic, Milan Mikulcik, Vlad Ivanov
Running Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Release Date: Feb. 25, 2022
Rating: 4.5 out of 5