Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Dec 14, 2020 7:29 am 
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IVAN OSTROCHOVSKY: SERVANTS (2020) - NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS

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Aesthetics outweigh story in this tale of Soviet era religious repression

Slovak filmmaker Ivan Ostrochovský's movie shows the aesthetics of totalitarianism. The focus is a seminary in 1980 during the period (1971 to 1989) when "Pacem in terris" was a decree and a body that existed in Czechoslovakia, created to repress Catholicism, and some of the priests and their acolytes rebelled, resulting in brutal repression.

It's all shown in academy ratio and black and white in the velvety cinematography of Jural Chlpik accompanied by a menacing, throbbing score. Every scene is beautifully composed. Cold stone and snow add to the contrast. The novitiates, some handsome, trim in their long black soutanes, enhance the graceful uniformity of the images, and a scene of a mountain town has medieval charm.

One could just sit and admire the sound and pictures, but this is about modern history. What's going on is ugly, and, indeed, come on wearing the air of a noir thriller. "Where're not here to enjoy ourselves," says a priest to a boy at one point, and that's putting it mildly. If you find it hard to see being Catholic as being free, the action may confuse you. These young men, seeking a life of the cloth, find its expression stifled. One must imagine, if one's in a very special place to cultivate one's religion, and one is hampered at every turn, because the regime sees one's Church as a threat, the oppression is outside the house.

There's a priest beaten and murdered and dumped out of a trunk under a bridge. There is a hunger strike. A couple of the novitiates are eliminated. Much is going on here. But it's conveyed collectively, like a dance. We don't get to see all the young men in any detail. Even courtyards are often seen from above, like a mouse cage. Most of the action is seen from the point of view of two newly arrived novitiates, Michal (Samuel Polakovic) and Juraj (Samuel Skyva), who see things are not as they should be and grow growingly tense and outraged. As the noirish strain grows, there is a growing fear by some priests that there is too much independence here among the boys, and the seminary will be shut down. They are being put under pressure to act as informants on any nonconformist behavior, or be removed and sent into the army. It's all like a deadly, nightmarish dance. One can admire Ostrochovský's artistry, while feeling the cold beauty somewhat blurs the story details. Handsome film, though.

Servants, 80 mins., debuted at Berlin, Feb. 2020 and was included in a dozen or so international festivals, winning a number of nominations and awards.

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