Friday 2 February 2024

On demand: "Servants"

A strange, unsettling crystallisation of a strange, unsettling time, Ivan Ostrochovský's
Servants opens on shadowy activity in the Czechoslovakia of 1980 - and literally shadowy at that, preserved in high-contrast black-and-white that suggests a digital-era update of a Carl Dreyer movie. Bodies being dumped in the middle of the night, urgent whispers about theological splinter groups: if ever you wanted to experience a film that transmitted much the same creeping, conspiratorial vibe as The Fall's "Hey! Luciani", this would be it. Somewhere in the middle of it all, Ostrochovský begins to chart the progress of two young men at a seminary, what would appear more conventional period-drama material. (Their efforts to learn the accordion on their afternoons off seem both quaint and a touch futile, given the surrounding doominess.) Yet this camera keeps being pulled away to what lurks around them, in those very shadows: confessions in two senses of the word, late-night tipoffs to Radio Free Europe, the long arm of the law hauling off harried-looking men in dog collars and shaking them upside down by their cassocks until their secrets fall out. Of course tyranny should have sought to extend itself over a nation's spiritual leaders, and to get the same iron grip on the soul as it had secured elsewhere on bodies and minds; what Ostrochovský is getting at here is how near everybody living within this milieu, even those positioning themselves closest to the light, was to some very real darkness.

A necessary caveat before we go on: for much of its running time, Servants is cool and distant viewing, and it's clear that Ostrochovský intends for us not to know exactly what's going on in certain sequences. (The darkness reaches out to us, too.) Yet the whole announces the arrival of a filmmaker with a heightened compositional sense, someone who's studied Dreyer, Bresson and Jancsó as these priests do papal letters, and who's thought long and hard about what he wants each of his own images to convey. Juraj Chlpik's superlative monochrome photography turns the naggingly complacent beauty of a film like Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War inside out, while his overhead shots indicate an ungodly kind of surveillance: the weight of an ever-growing State apparatus bearing down on perishable flesh-and-blood, forcing its subjects to tense and submit. This is one of the tougher varieties of film to recommend, because you really would have to be in the right, rigorous mood for it. (One priest rather unimprovably captures the critic and viewer's dilemma in a single line late on: "You need to understand we're not here to be happy.") Servants is nevertheless mightily impressive in its own way: conjuring up by sheer cinematic transubstantiation - images and words for blood and wine - what it might well have been to inhabit this period in Czech history, and at every turn making us, too, fear the worst.

Servants is now streaming via Channel 4 here, and available to rent via Prime Video and Curzon Home Cinema.

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