Streaming Review

Servants review – noirish study of church and state in Communist Europe

Gorgeous black and white cinematography brings to life the conflict between religion and the authorities in 1980s Czechoslovakia

From the noirish opening and beyond, Servants keeps you in the dark. Here is a film about the twin institutions of the church and the communist state, and how the pair conflict with one another yet serve a dual purpose of clamping down on thoughts and feelings, leaving humanity behind in favour of abstract, ideological achievements. It’s a grim but gripping tale, beautifully shot and scored as its characters are reduced to mere cogs in their machines.

Set in a seminary in ‘80s Czechoslovakia, Servants finds two new arrivals plunged immediately into an environment of despair and mistrust. The authorities have decided that the seminary is seditious and seem to have planted informants amongst the young priests-in-training while confiscating the seminary’s typewriters. Words and honesty are at a premium, but an idealistic rebellion foments nonetheless, fighting back against state forces with nothing more than pamphlets written and distributed under the cover of dark.

Director Ivan Ostrochovský creates a sense of doom and inevitable defeat with great efficiency and skill (Servants packs a lot in to its 80-minute runtime without ever feeling overstuffed), putting you into the mindset of paranoia that pervades the rebellious priests. Every corner seems to hide a threat against which there can be no recourse, a point hammered home by a brilliantly disconcerting soundtrack.

Shot in crisp black and white, the film conjures up some indelible imagery, from a freight train transporting tanks to a bloody shoe being washed in a sink to a sternly formal snowball fight in front of a Soviet monument. The struggles of the priests against state forces who seek desperately to control their thought is both epic and intimate, a fight taking place all across Europe yet won and lost in the depths of the soul.

Opaque and intellectually rigorous, Servants doesn’t exactly invite us to explore its characters' inner lives, lacking the emotional heft of, say, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, yet with its gorgeous cinematography and unshakeably oppressive atmosphere, it should reward patient viewers immensely.

Servants is now available on Curzon Home Cinema.

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