For its imagery alone, this bleak and beautiful drama by Ivan Ostrochovský is worth a look, although it’s love of an exquisitely composed frame distances you from the characters.
Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic) are young men arriving at a seminary in 80s totalitarian Czechoslovakia. What might have once been a secure and respectable career path has become a liability under a regime that seeks to take away the power of the church. The secret police have a firm grip on church leaders, who will even break the sanctity of the confessional in order to save themselves.
Juraj begins to listen to the quiet dissent of a secret group who post anonymous pamphlets decrying the state-sanctioned Pacem in Terris (ironically ‘Peace on Earth’) that provides the acceptable face of Catholicism. His interest draws him away from Michal, with tragic consequences.
This film is all about the visuals and they are stunning. Perfectly framed tableau are held for a moment before the characters begin to move, police and informants meet under a beautifully lit bridge with trains slowly lumbering past above, an aerial view shows the black robes of the boys spinning and turning within the confines of a courtyard as they kick a soccer ball and then at the sound of a bell, like a flock of birds on the wing they flow up the stairs and out of frame.
The storytelling is similarly staged and stylised. We are shown meaningful moments that are sometimes explained, sometimes opaque until they are repeated later on and we understand their significance. It works to show us unimpassioned glimpses into the lives of adversaries, perhaps showing their ordinariness and that the workings of state-run thuggery is perfunctory and bureaucratic. It’s nothing personal.
I suspect this cold and bleak resonance is deliberate and we understand by the end that emotion and individualism doesn’t really matter in a world like this. It keeps you from engaging with the characters though and you intellectually understand the dynamics between the two leads, Juraj and Michal, but not emotionally. Although probably true, the hopelessness is dispiriting.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.