Set in a Catholic seminary in 1980s Brastislava, Servants is strongly reminiscent in both style and subject matter of the Czech New Wave cinema of the 1960s. The stark black & white cinematography and oppressive atmosphere convey the feel of a Cold War espionage thriller in this story of state suppression.
Beginning as a body is removed from the boot of a car and dumped under a bridge, we skip back in time 143 days and hear the welcoming speech for the new intake of young men at the seminary, noting that there had been some troublemakers in last year’s intake and expressing the ominous hope that this will not be repeated. Although nominally run according to the guidelines of the Catholic hierarchy, the head of the seminary is resigned to being under the thumb of the “church department” of State Security. A secret underground movement of priests and seminarians hold meetings, disseminate pamphlets and leak information to Radio Free Europe in a covert rebellion against state subjugation of religion. The confessor who welcomes the two focal characters to the seminary is compromised due to a hit & run accident in his past, turning the confessional into an intelligence source for rooting out disloyalty. Dissidents are turned into informers, drafted into the military, or otherwise disposed of.
The distinction between state bureaucracy and religious institution is blurred in other ways. The Association of Catholic Clergy Pacem in Terris, officially sponsored by the regime, holds its meetings in a cleanly regimented conference hall. Business suits are more prevalent than clerical robes and there is a none-too-subtle shot of all of the clergy present holding forth their right arms in worship, an image doubtlessly intended to evoke the memory of the fascist salute. The final scene of the film shows the head of State Security’s “church department” kneeling naked in front of his terminal, bathing in the glow of the screen with a reverence suggesting a religious dedication to his service to the State.
The cinematography is beautifully composed, with careful framing, skillful lighting and striking imagery throughout. An air of brooding menace dominates the soundtrack, with occasional irruptions of Ligeti-like choral bursts of spirituality (albeit lacking the sense of peace traditionally present in a religious setting). There are a couple of moments which might normally be considered joyful or even hilarious in this setting – a priest jumping on a trampoline, three seminarians throwing snowballs at each other – which, by their placement in relation to other scenes and their unconventional staging, are instead full of the threat of suppressed violence, whether from within or without.
Although there are minor signs of hope towards the end of the film, as the suicide of a seminarian affects the actions of the compromised confessor and his roommate, the movie (quite rightly) does not hint forwards to the change in government to come at the end of the decade. Instead it remains firmly anchored within the era depicted and leaves the viewer (along with the characters) uncertain of the future.