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Servants is a story about the collusion between the Catholic Church and the Czechoslovakian StB (its secret service) in the days of the Cold War. It’s also a beautifully made film, full of arresting cinematography and a soundtrack so haunting that it alone makes the film worth catching.

The opening shot, of a car seen from behind gliding down a night-time road through an industrial landscape, immediately places us in noirish thriller territory. This is a world where bad things happen at night, unsmiling men stalk the landscape, bodies are dumped by roadsides, cigarettes are smoked, drink is drunk and belted overcoats are worn. Women don’t have an awful lot to do. It could almost be the 1940s.

Most of it takes place in a Catholic seminary, where teenagers, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic) are starting a new life and will eventually be turned into priests. Not the priests so often held up as exemplars of solid resistance to the communist regime, but compliant clerics whose membership of the Pacem in Terris organisation – to which the seminary is closely linked – marks them out as men prepared to compromise.

But for every Pacem in Terris, there are other, more secret organisations in Czechoslovakia, who ordain their own, non-state-sanctioned priests. For every compliant Spiritual (Milan Mikulcík), the boys’ guide to the church’s (and Pacem in Terris’s) teaching, there is an agitator like Ductor (Tomas Turek), who leaks information to Radio Free Europe and who encourages teenagers to join him in posting anti-regime statements on the seminary noticeboard.

Enter a secret service man, Ivan (Vlad Ivanov), also a servant of the lord (different lord), who we first meet at his doctor’s, where he’s being treated for seemingly unstoppable psoriasis, and who ends up at the seminary determined to track down and eliminate the source of the dissent.

The seminary at prayer
The seminarians at prayer

Director Ivan Ostrochovsky, along with his co-writers Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Mark Lescák, go to some length to point out that both the boys and the man represent institutions that pay lip service to ideals of egalitarianism but actually operate as hierarchical self-perpetuating entities.

At the seminary Juraz and Michal are that self-perpetuation made flesh. Will they comply or resist? And who with? Older men, Ductor and Spiritual, are their guides, but on one side there’s the even more dissident Father Coufar (Vladimír Obsil), who acts as a warning about what happens when things go too far, and on the other the cold, efficient hand of StB man Ivan.

Ostrochovsky and his remarkable DP Juraj Chlpik shoot high, as if god (or a spook) were in charge of the camera, in long takes, and there are regular reminders in satirical “equivalence” shots that Church and StB are not so dissimilar – cigarette smoke curling like incense, a bottle of hooch raised as if it were a chalice. Is it fanciful to see Dreyer’s silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc in Chlpik’s lighting? Perhaps the austerity and severe compositions of master Czech photographer Josef Koudelka? I’m trying to say the look of this film is extraordinary. Choose your own reference points but tight, tight control of the tonal range, from bright white to velvet black is everything. Ansel Adams?

The soundtrack, by Cristian Lolea and Miroslav Toth, is evocative and also works through “equivalences”, with near-approximate refractions of church bells, choirs and high soprano voices delivered as airy, echoes of the sounds they’re based on. Things rumble, they squeak, they toll ominously.

I’ve avoided too much plot because this is simplicity itself – one boy is tugged in one direction and the other in the other. And it does not end well, except for the secret service guy whose final scenes shows him being bathed in the rays of a UV sunlamp. Does wonders for psoriasis. It is the only holy, healing light on display in this film.

The standard line of Christian churches who kept on going behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War was that “we kept the flame alive”. But how, asks Servants? Whose servant were you – god’s or the Party’s?

Servants – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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