The Movie Waffler New Release Review [VOD] - SERVANTS | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [VOD] - SERVANTS

servants review
In 1980 Czechoslovakia, two young men enter a Catholic seminary under investigation by the Communist authorities.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ivan Ostrochovský

Starring: Samuel Skyva, Samuel Polakovič, Vlad Ivanov, Vladimír Strnisko, Milan Mikulčík

servants poster

In the manner of Goodfellas, Ivan Ostrochovský's Servants opens in media res with the aftermath of a killing. Two men drive a car to a secluded area and dispose of a body before wiping blood off their shoes. This isn't some mob hit, but rather a state-sanctioned killing. We're in the Czechoslovakia of 1980, where those who defy the authorities are routinely disappeared and disposed of.

servants review

Servants' narrative subsequently takes us back several months as two young men - Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovič) – are enrolled at a dour Catholic seminary. While the practice of religion is technically banned, the state has worked out a compromise with a Catholic group known as Pacem in Terris, allowing priests to perform their duties under the watchful eye of the state. This is in direct contravention to the orders of the Vatican, which has decreed that priests are forbidden from collaborating with the Communist Party.

There's much hypocrisy at play in this scenario. Like the Soviet version of Communism, the Catholic Church preaches equality while its leaders live in a luxury denied their followers. But Ostrochovsky isn't interested in exploring the Church's sanctimony. In his eyes the Catholic Church is a resistance movement, battling Communism, which is portrayed with all the nuance of a 1950s American 'Reds under the beds' propaganda short.

servants review

Communism is embodied here by the sinister figure of Ivan (Vlad Ivanov), a balding bureaucrat who keeps tabs on the seminary, plying its dean with much sought after vodka. Working against him are forces within the seminary, with Juraj taken under the wing of the rebellious priests and placing himself in danger.

Servants favours atmosphere over narrative. It's an approach I would generally applaud, but here it feels a little too mannered. Shot in the crisp monochrome of an early Depeche Mode video with an industrial soundscape reminiscent of Eraserhead, Ostrochovsky's film looks and sounds like a horror movie, but you would need to be an unquestioningly devout Catholic to view its narrative in such terms. There's even a dash of Cronenbergian body-horror as Ivan's flesh is gradually covered in lesions, perhaps a physical manifestation of his guilt. The portrayal of 1980 Czechoslovakia is so overwhelmingly bleak it almost comes off as parodic – everyone looks like they belong on that train Woody Allen finds himself stuck on in Stardust Memories.

servants review

As someone with a left-wing viewpoint and a suspicion of organised religion, Servants was always going to struggle to win this writer over. That said, I'm more than willing to put my own political baggage aside to engage in a good thriller. Had Servants done more to invest its audience in its two young protagonists – who seem to share an unexplored homoerotic frisson – then it could well have been a nerve-wracking Cold War conspiracy thriller. It's certainly cold, with Ostrochovsky's camera viewing events with a dispassionate distance, but it's never quite as chilling as this story of paranoia and fear of authoritarianism should be.

 is on UK/ROI VOD through virtual cinemas from May 14th.

2021 movie reviews