‘Servants’ Review: Fighting for Purity of Faith

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The captivating ecclesiastical drama “Servants,” set in 1980s Czechoslovakia, follows teenage matriculates at a Christian seminary who awaken to a grim reality. Their Dean (Vladimir Strnisko) is a member of Pacem in Terris, a group of clergy quietly granting control of the church to the Communist state. Considering this a moral corruption, several of the students initiate a discreet rebellion.

The story follows best friends Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic), a solemn duo who join the seminary and pair up to study, play soccer and practice their accordions. But once Juraj meets the peers who are furtively connecting with the Vatican in defiance of their advisers, he snubs Michal to support the cause.

Directed by the Slovakian filmmaker Ivan Ostrochovsky, “Servants” pairs chilly black-and-white imagery, reminiscent of films by Robert Bresson, with an austere kind of choreography: Ostrochovsky often begins shots with characters frozen in place for several seconds before they launch into action, as if they were chess pieces moved by God across the bare lines of the seminary’s crumbling stone architecture.

Evocative details fill out this spartan world. Through the movie, the ominous Doctor Ivan (Vlad Ivanov), a member of the secret police responsible for weeding out and penalizing student dissidents, suffers from a progressive rash. It snakes across his body in concert with his accruing sins.

A clearer picture of the bond between Juraj and Michal may have made this moral tale more affecting. But as Ostrochovsky deploys his arresting imagery, he shows less interest in the boys’ rift than in the political and holy struggles guiding them. “Be careful. The school is undergoing restorations,” a pupil advises the pair early on. “Servants” sees the dissolution of one friendship as a small price to pay toward the restoration of a school’s — and nation’s — purity of faith.

Servants
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. In virtual cinemas and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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