“You have to understand, we’re not here to be happy,” a so-called spiritual adviser counsels one of his wards in a Catholic seminary — a rare moment of truth in the shadowy morass of governmental and theological manipulation that consumes Ivan Ostrochovský’s impressively icy Iron Curtain noir “Servants.” Though happiness has never seemed the objective of priesthood so much as a kind of affectless peace, both are in short supply in a film that jitters and shivers with anti-authoritarian sentiment beneath its serene monochrome aesthetic. Form and feeling are at odds throughout this steadily transfixing tale of young seminarians standing up to the Communist Party’s infiltration of their school in the former Czechoslovakia.
All hard, clipped lines and spectral quietude, from performances to production design, this is a period piece with a dystopian bent. It may be set in 1980, though as its opaquely fragmented storytelling and hyper-meticulous mise-en-scène combine to disorienting effect, “Servants” appears to play out in a nightmarish netherworld between the midcentury austerity of Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” and “Cold War,” and the chic, regressive futurism of Andrew Niccol’s “Gattaca.” Comparisons to that Pawlikowski pair — with which it shares a screenwriter, British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz — will be rife as “Servants” continues its festival run, which began in Berlin’s inaugural Encounters competition, with a spot at MoMA’s New Directors/New Films program to come. But Ostrochovský’s sophomore feature isn’t derivative of anything so much as its own, surreally evoked historical era; the arresting result surpasses the Slovakian director’s more familiarly gritty, Oscar-submitted 2015 debut “Goat.”
Proceedings begin with a flash-forward to a scene of straight-up film noir skulduggery, as the camera tracks a car crawling ominously along a deserted stretch of road in the dead of night. It stops by a ghostly underpass; a body is removed from the trunk. Later, shoes are scrubbed of dirt and blood; two men exchange conspiratorial glances in a corridor. Just as we appear to be in mobster territory, a “143 days earlier” title card shifts the focus to two wholesome teenage boys, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovič), best friends who jointly leave their hometown to enrol at the same stately, imposing seminary. There, they file in with dozens of other dark-robed, whey-faced young men performing menial and spiritual duties under the cold command of the Dean (Vladimír Strnisko) and his clergy.
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With short, elliptical scenes and terse dialogue, Ostrochovský teases out the connection between the grimy criminal activity of the prologue and the seminary’s more ascetically sinister atmosphere, though it’s immediately clear that not all is pure in this house of God. The Communist regime and the Catholic Church, while ideologically at odds, have worked out a compromise whereby the latter operates under state control, principally through the collaborationist priests’ association Pacem in Terris — a real-life body that existed in Czechoslovakia from 1971 to 1989 — of which the Dean is an abiding member. Those who resist involvement will be subject to secret police involvement, embodied by the baneful figure of Doctor Ivan (Romanian star Vlad Ivanov, bringing his usual implacable air of menace to the party).
Juraj and Michal are thus cast straight into a high-stakes moral battle between church and state — in which sides must be chosen, with severe consequences for body and soul alike. Depending on your view of the Catholic Church, this conflict may not seem as neatly black-and-white as cinematographer Juraj Chlpík’s pristine Academy-ratio compositions, which often appear painted in pools of milk and ink. “Servants,” for its part, takes no discernible position on the matter, depicting both institutions as morally spartan, ruled by gaunt, grey men with seemingly no passion or mission beyond fulfilling their obligations to a higher power. Even the boys’ personalities and friendship gradually melt into the corrupted, consuming shadows: What for a time seems a vulnerable coming-of-age story takes on a wider, nihilistic worldview.
Every immaculate aspect of the filmmaking here serves that frosty objective, from the dislocated, geometric aerial shots that Chlpík (“Blind Loves”) often uses to survey the seminary grounds, to Miroslav Toth and Cristian Lolea’s inventive, insidious score of industrial hums and disembodied chants. “Servants” is briskly shaped at just under 80 minutes, yet its alien-historical world-building is effective enough that you emerge from it feeling both out of time and out of breath: Any longer, and all humanity would bleed out of this earthly-but-ethereal conspiracy drama entirely.