by Christie Robb
Set in 1980s totalitarian Czechoslovakia, director Ivan Ostrochovský’s Servants follows teenage Catholic seminarians at Bratislava Theological Faculty. Here even religious texts are prohibited, banned as a threat to state security.
A real-world association of priests outwardly loyal to the Communist leadership, Pacem in Terris, controls the school and works in tandem with the government to uphold the Communist party line. This forces freethinkers who want full access to religious texts to go underground, exchanging books and meeting in secret.
The film starts with a noir-style drive along a secluded road. Eventually, the car parks under a bridge, two men emerge, and a body is dumped from the trunk.
One of the men is a priest, the other a State Security operative. Although they claim the dead man was a victim of a hit and run, it’s clear he’s been brutally tortured to death. The rest of the story is told mostly in flashback and relates the events of the previous 143 days.
Servants is a spare film. Shot in black and white, the camera often lingers—the white curl of smoke against a black background, the security operative’s bleak little apartment, overhead God’s Eye shots of the seminary boys playing in the courtyard, or agonizing behind the prison bar-like frames of their bunk beds about whether they should collaborate with the government and become informants or put themselves at risk of becoming targets.
A lot of the lingering shows the routine minutiae of life—eating, bathing, practicing a musical instrument, for example. This is in contrast to the oppressive feel of constant surveillance and possible eruptions of violence.
Combined with a very understated score, this illustrates how normalized the culture of censorship and menace became. But it also makes Servants a little hypnotic. It can be easy to let the mind wander to other things. Other banned reading materials. Other stirrings of authoritarianism.