Servants is the second feature film in the career of the Slovak director Ivan Ostrochovský. The movie had its absolute premiere in the newly established Encounters section of the Berlinale 2020 (where Cristi Puiu received the directing award for Malmkrog), the Romanian one at TIFF (Transilvania International Film Festival) in Cluj and the one in Bucharest at Cinema under the moonlight (kind of a Calea Victoriei-based TIFF-version, scheduled over several weekends, hosted by a surprisingly large courtyard / raw land, to be found behind the building at number 192A).
Servants marks Vlad Ivanov's debut in Slovak cinema. Coming after his debut in the Hungarian cinema (Yesterday, directed by Bálint Kenyeres), Ukrainian cinema (My Joy, by Sergey Loznitsa), German cinema (Toni Erdmann by Maren Ade), Spanish cinema (Crematorio TV series, directed by Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo), Italian cinema (Mar Nero by Federico Bondi), French cinema (Le père Goriot television film, directed by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe). On top of his roles in Hollywood super-productions. It is true what we say in Romania: we don't have the actors we used to have. In fact, no Romanian film actor has ever achieved this despite of performance. If he keeps the pace from the most recent years, Vlad Ivanov has all the chances to become one of Europe's best 10 actors. Unless he's already one of them.
In Servants, Ivanov is, yet again, the bad guy. Which means, in this case the highest-ranking political secret service member in a story about the tough moral choices, happening in Bratislava at the end of the 8th decade of the last century. Štátna bezpečnosť is the Slovakian name for the former political police in the former Czechoslovakia. Brief version: ŠtB.
Vlad Ivanov plays Dr. Ivanov. The citizen carrying a stethoscope who steps down from the black car when the job is done, makes a few steps and confirms the death. In the next frame, Dr. Ivanov meticulously washes his shoes (the fake crocodile skin-type, highly fashionable in the era, not only in Czechoslovakia, but also in the rest of the communist world, too) with a toothbrush in the sink. While walking from the car to the corpse, there had been mud on the road.
Two teenagers, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic), are admitted to the Theological Seminary in Bratislava. We are in a communist country, in the late 70s, and, equally important, we are close to Poland, the country where Pope John Paul II was born. The first ever pope coming from Eastern Europe. The Pope's charisma, public gestures and speeches encourage those who dream of freedom. The Catholic Church plays a key role.
This is the reason why ŠtB founded the Pacem in terris Catholic clerical association. Apparently, an organization meant to advocate for peace and good understanding between countries. In fact, an excellent vehicle for gathering information about priests, blackmailing, manipulating, killing them. After those tasks are performed, peace and good understanding could finally be established.
Juraj and Michal are trapped in the jaws of the era. Having as soundtrack either Radio Free Europe (the Czech version) or the excellent score created by Cristian Lolea and Miroslav Toth, benefiting from the impressive performance of DoP Juraj Chlpik, Servants gradually but surely narrows the universe, the world, the Seminary, the big dilemmas around the necks of the two teenagers.
At first, the adolescents play football in the venerable inner courtyard (a stone rectangle, framed by the Seminary buildings, shot from above, from the perspective of a sky that allows playing). In the end, the yard is empty and cold. At some point during the movie, a few ropes are stretched in the yard, on which white sheets are hanging. A book should be written on the artistic motif of white sheets hanging to dry, as employed in Eastern European films (Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Romanian, etc.).
At first, Juraj and Michal play scissors - stone - paper to choose which of them will sleep on the upper bed. In the end, one of them looks up through the wire network acting as mattress on the emptied bed. Once again, we look to the characters from above.
Ivan Ostrochovský's and Juraj Chlpik's visual style resembles that of Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's (Ida and Cold War). And not only because of black and white choice. No surprise to leanr that Rebecca Lenkiewicz appears on the list of co-writers for both Ida and Servants. The frames composition, the whispered remarks, the stylistic austerity (not lacking, however, a certain warmth / empathy in relation to the characters and their dilemmas) brings to the memory another little gem from the TIFF 2020 portfolio: Akik maradtak / Those Who Remained, by Hungarian director Barnabás Tóthby. Once again, the Central-Eastern European connection. Local specificity. Common groundwater. Common geography. Common recent history. Common artistic motifs.
Apparently, Dr. Ivanov's counterparty is the old Dean of the Seminary (Vladimír Strnisko (quite a celebrity in Slovakia, director, playwright, professor, making his acting debut in film in Servants, at the age of 82!). Listening to Free Europe radio during night-time, leading Pacem in terris during daytime, collaborating with ŠtB at all times, having as only purpose avoiding the Seminar getting closed. At all costs.
In fact, the real counterparty of Vlad Ivanov's character is the confessional priest played by the excellent Milan Mikulcík. Young people confess to him, he deals directly with their spiritual development. The deal made by him creates far more damage than the one made by his superior. He is a trusted person; therefore he ruins the lives of those having faith in him.
Apparently, Servants is just another movie about the past. In fact, the situation of a man forced by destiny to choose is perennial. Each choice has its share of black and white. Things are rarely clear and never easy. At least, that's how things are in this part of the world. In the world where Ida, Those Who Remained, Servants, 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, etc. come from.