Young Critics review: Servants
“We are not here to be happy.” These words are spoken by a priest in the seminary in which childhood friends Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic) are initiated, in Ivan Ostrochovský’s Servants (2020). A dark and ambiguous tale, not in small part thanks to Cristian Lolea and Miroslav Toth’s hypnotizingly low-pitched drone soundtrack, impressively adept at conveying an ominous feeling, like a heavy weight resting on top of a film that grinds on incessantly as it mercilessly drills into the secrets of Communist state surveillance pitted against the catholic church in early 1980s Czechoslovakia.
When Juraj and Michal arrive with the intention of becoming students of theology, they get dressed in long black religious habits. The boys learn to be pious, impotent even, yet their very attire emphasizes their oppressed phallicity as they play table tennis in between classes, going round and round in perfect calculation. Servants triumphs in its formalist style, never giving it free rein, but keeping a balance between sound, image and narrative.
An unknown, but omniscient secret force of supposed statesmen sees to it that the friends are put on a different path as they learn that they must keep silent in order to survive. As they descend into their double lives, an image of a literally two-faced Jesus appears on the sterile, white wall. When one of the boys eventually breaks, confessing to his friend—though not to the audience—his sins behind an equally white sheet of drying cloth, “Why did you not tell me this?” can only elicit “You do not tell me everything either” as a response.
When secret files surface, a cycle of murders that seemed otherwise parallel yet unrelated to the main storyline now crosses over to the other side, leaving bloody traces that will be soon sentenced to Silencio, alongside the remaining students. While we are never let in on the name of murderer, we see his skin slowly rotting, even after desperately trying to scrub it clean.