Multidimensionality on Parade

How well do “you” (sometimes called “the localized you,” the version of ourselves with which the majority of us are most familiar) know the totality of your true self? Chances are most of us aren’t even aware of the existence of any of the other parts of ourselves, let alone any of the particulars about them. But those well versed in metaphysical circles have a good sense about our innate multidimensionality and what that can do for us (as well as those other parts of ourselves). Some of this might sound somewhat cryptic, but making audiences aware of this phenomenon is what the new manic comedy-drama “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is all about (web site, trailer).

When Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), the beleaguered owner of a laundromat, is simultaneously beset by an array of issues, it seems, like the movie’s title implies, that everything is hitting her all at once. For starters, there’s her milquetoast husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), whom she’s grown tired of and wants to divorce. Then there’s her lesbian daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), whom Evelyn is torn about when it comes to dealing with her lifestyle and partner, Becky (Tallie Medel). Compounding all that is her father, Gong Gong (James Hong), an aging, high-maintenance senior, who recently arrived from China. And, as all of this is going on, she struggles to operate the business and plan a Chinese New Year party.

Unbeknownst to her, laundromat owner Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is about to embark on a grand adventure she never saw coming in the manic new metaphysical comedy-drama, “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Photo courtesy of A24.

But, if all that weren’t enough, Evelyn and Waymond are also facing the scrutiny of an IRS audit, an investigation assigned to a hard-nosed, no-nonsense agent, Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis). Deirdre, it seems, has no life outside of her work, so she meticulously devotes all of her time, energy and effort to ruthlessly probing the details of the tax returns she’s assigned to review. She prides herself on the many awards she’s received for her scrupulously attentive work, and, as she performs her initial analysis of the Wangs’ return, she gleefully salivates over what she sees, already picturing herself nabbing another trophy.

As all of this is going on, however, events start taking some extremely strange turns. Beginning as early as the elevator ride up to the IRS office and continuing once inside, Evelyn begins having what seem to be visions, out-of-body experiences, and auditory and visual hallucinations. Given that they occur so suddenly and unexpectedly, she’s totally unprepared for them. Given that they involve concepts she’s never heard of before, she doesn’t know how to respond. And, given that the information associated with them appears to be delivered by someone who claims to be an otherly dimensional version of Waymond, she’s confused beyond belief. But one point that comes through loud, clear and repeatedly is the alternate Waymond’s contention that this version of Evelyn is the one he has been seeking for ages. And, in explaining what he means by this version of Evelyn, he raises the concept of “the multiverse,” the aggregate amalgamation of all the different universes that can potentially exist and in which all of us have an alternate self in existence.

A family beset by an array of challenges (from left), daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), father Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), mother Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and grandfather Gong Gong (James Hong), think they’re simply attending an IRS audit, but it’s the start of something big in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Photo by Allyson Riggs, courtesy of A24.

So why does the alternate Waymond want this Evelyn? He says it’s because she possesses certain specialized talents that none of her counterparts have. And, as for the skills in question, the alternate Waymond says it’s her abilities for being able to effectively take on a growing evil that threatens the viability of the multiverse. He says it’s up to her to fix things or face the possible destruction of the multiverse. But, as for what those skills are, Evelyn doesn’t have a clue, especially since she has virtually no awareness or understanding of the multiverse in general, let alone how to repair it. So now what?

It’s at this point that the film launches into a grand adventure whose narrative is far too complicated to explain here. Suffice it to say, however, that the Evelyn viewers meet initially learns about the nature of the multiverse and what it can enable for each of us. This includes the ability to tap into parts of our “selves” that we previously knew nothing about, such as their skills, knowledge, attributes and talents, qualities that we can tap into and draw from in being able to resolve the issues we each face in our “home” universe. It’s an enlightening and educational experience, one that teaches us about ourselves, our “selves” and how the two can interact for the betterment of each other. It’s quite a wild ride indeed.

IRS auditor Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis) prides herself on getting every penny owed to the government, no matter how ruthlessly she must be, as seen in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the latest from directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (the “Daniels”). Photo by Allyson Riggs, courtesy of A24.

There are no doubt times when we’ve all thought ourselves to be more than what we’re immediately aware of. We may have only a vague notion of what that actually means, but we’re nevertheless aware that there’s something to that undefinable but undeniable quality. That fuzzy intuitive impression may seem like something that’s easily dismissed, yet it’s something we shouldn’t ignore. The reason? It provides us with an important clue to the true nature of our being.

Those who are well-versed in metaphysical studies understand that such impressions are intended to help us grasp the multifaceted, multidimensional nature of who we are. The “localized” version of ourselves is understandably the one with which we’re most familiar, but it’s only one part of something larger, a “being” that goes by various terms, such as “higher self,” “multidimensional self” or “oversoul.” The other individualized components of that greater self – often referred to as “counterparts” – reside in other dimensions or other “universes” in which they possess various attributes, some of which may be similar to ours, others of which may be remarkably different. In either case, we possess connections to those other selves, whether or not we’re aware of them. However, should we become cognizant of them, it’s possible to forge significant bonds with them, linkages that can prove to be beneficial to both them and us.

Those unfamiliar with these notions may well ask, how is all of this possible? As implausible as it all may sound to some, we can chalk it up to our beliefs, which manifest the reality we experience. And, given that the range of these resources is inherently infinite, it makes possible an infinite range of materializations, each of which occupies its own corresponding dimension or universe, all of which, when taken collectively, constitute the multiverse, the concept to which Evelyn is introduced for the first time.

Like many of us, Evelyn initially looks upon the concept with skepticism. However, when she has an opportunity to experience those other dimensions and to interact with those other selves, she can see the qualities they each possess. Those attributes run the gamut of possibilities, from the ridiculous to the sublime to the inspiring. In one permutation, for example, Evelyn meets her other self from a universe in which everyone has hot dogs for fingers. In another, she sees herself as a seasoned kung fu master. And, in yet another still, she views Evelyn the glamorous and successful movie star.

When Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh, center) explores her alternate selves, she discovers talents and abilities she never knew she possessed, as seen in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” now playing in theaters. Photo by Allyson Riggs, courtesy of A24.

At first glance, some may look upon this and heave a heavy “So what?” But, upon closer inspection, we might begin to see the value in this. When we consider the skills these other selves possess, we might also be able to understand how we can draw from them to benefit our localized selves. For instance, when alternate Waymond tells the local Evelyn that she has the skills necessary to take on the growing evil threatening the existence of the multiverse, she initially has no idea what he’s talking about. However, when she sees the other Evelyns, she begins to grasp how she can draw from their experiences to hone her abilities for taking on the task at hand. Her kung fu master self, for instance, shows her localized counterpart how to employ her previously dormant fighting skills when called upon. And so it goes with each of the alternate selves localized Evelyn meets, enabling her to amass a repertoire of abilities that will stand her in good stead for tackling her ultimate task.

Evelyn thus sets an inspiring example for the rest of us. She shows us how she’s able to become more than who she thought she was. She opens her mind to possibilities that she hadn’t previously considered. She tosses aside fears and limitations that have been holding her back. And she draws from these experiences to alter her beliefs and her reality in ways she had never envisioned. Through this process, the various problems that had been hitting her with everything from everywhere all at once suddenly don’t seem like the foreboding issues they once did. It’s as if she’s able to become her own superhero, capable of taking on whatever challenges she faces – and succeeding.

In light of the foregoing, multidimensionality probably doesn’t sound as far-fetched or ridiculous as it once may have. Instead, it can be viewed as the valuable tool it truly is. And, given that, it might not be so easily dismissed. All it takes is opening our minds to the possibilities and availing ourselves of them when they present themselves. Worth a try, wouldn’t you say?

Having learned from her other multidimensional selves, laundromat owner Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) discovers skills she never knew she possessed in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Photo courtesy of A24.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is quite a film, in some ways a masterpiece and in others a project in need of work. This insightful and hilarious exploration of an array of heady philosophical, metaphysical and moral concepts is, in many respects, a visual assault on the senses but one that’s punctuated by stunningly clever visual effects, huge laughs, uproarious send-ups of a variety of other films, and dynamite performances by Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis. In many ways, it reminds me of the recent release “Strawberry Mansion” but on steroids. Unfortunately, however, that’s where the picture gets itself into trouble. In its attempt to cover a lot of ground, it gets bogged down by its own content, going on far too long and telling a story that could have easily been trimmed by about a half-hour. This could have been accomplished by eliminating some bits that overstay their welcome (such as its take-offs of martial arts movies, which start out funny but grow tiresome after a few too many run-throughs). It also would have worked better by focusing on its philosophical and metaphysical themes and deleting the moral concepts, which don’t work as well and only serve to slow down the overall pacing. This offering from directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (the “Daniels”) is certainly an ambitious and inventive release, but it’s unfortunate that the filmmakers didn’t know when to stop. It’s indeed worth a look, but it’s regrettable that the directors didn’t have the wherewithal to “kill their darlings” and quit while they were ahead. The film is currently playing theatrically.

It’s been said that there are times when we all exceed our expectations, becoming more than we thought we could be. Indeed, in these situations, we truly surpass the sum of our various parts. For instance, one need only look to the many examples of individuals who exhibit feats of superhuman strength during times of crisis. Where does that come from? It’s hard to say, but perhaps those individuals have alternate selves who dwell in dimensions where such capabilities are the norm and they’ve learned how to tap into those abilities and employ them in this reality. Whatever the source, however, what matters most is the ability to make the connection and put it to use when it truly counts. Evelyn seems to have learned how to do this – and maybe we can, too.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Plumbing the Depths of Unrequired Love


Trite as it may sound, love is like food, something we need to live. It nourishes and sustains us, and it often makes life worth living. So, when we end up going without it, we generally feel starved. But what’s even worse is when we can see what we’re missing but unable to attain it, not unlike the ever-elusive unobtainable sustenance that tormented Sisyphus throughout eternity. Sentiments not unlike that provide the basis for a new take on a timeless classic, the musical adaptation of the stage favorite, “Cyrano” (web site, trailer).

To love from afar is one of the most stirring scenarios in the world of romance. Unfortunately, it’s also one of most tragic. Such is the lot of 17th Century French swordsman and poet Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage), who relentlessly swoons over his childhood friend, the fair Roxanne (Haley Bennett), pining away for her in woeful silence. Despite his great wisdom, his accomplished talents with the blade and his eloquence with the pen, he nevertheless believes he’s unworthy of love, especially that of someone so lovely as Roxanne. This is due to his diminutive stature, which is a constant source of ridicule and belittlement from a callous and uncompassionate society, one whose members frequently brand him as a freak. And, to compound matters, Cyrano keeps his feelings to himself, the only one to have a clue being his best friend and fellow soldier, Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin).

Diminutive swordsman and poet Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage) pines from afar for a love he believes inaccessible to him in director Joe Wright’s “Cyrano.” Photo by Peter Mountain, courtesy © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

Roxanne, meanwhile, has her own challenges. Having grown accustomed to leading a comfortable life, she needs to find ways to sustain that standard – not an easy feat when one is effectively broke. Marriage, it would seem, could help to solve that problem, and Roxanne is actively looking to fulfill that ambition but through a perfect storybook romance. However, as Roxanne’s chaperone and household companion, Marie (Monica Dolan), so pointedly observes, money is what Roxanne needs, something that often doesn’t accompany amour. So, when dates are arranged for her with moneyed suitors like Viscount Valvert (Joshua James) or the powerful Duke de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), Roxanne goes along, albeit begrudgingly. Those circumstances become ever more complicated when Roxanne catches a passing but heart-stopping glance of a handsome young military recruit, Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who simultaneously melts at the glimpse of the fair maiden. It’s kismet, to be sure.

As Roxanne falls for the man in uniform, Cyrano concurrently resolves to finally tell her how he feels. He arranges a rendezvous to profess his love, a meeting at which she simultaneously seeks to confess her attraction for Christian. And, when her secret surfaces, Cyrano is heartbroken, especially when she seeks advice on how she might be able to meet her new love. Indeed, the tragedy thickens.

When cadet de Bergerac encounters cadet de Neuvillette at their military compound, Christian informs Cyrano of his love for Roxanne, an attraction that the lovelorn soldier confirms is mutual. That revelation leaves Christian overjoyed but in a dilemma – as one who is frequently lost for words in adequately expressing himself, he wonders how he’ll ever be able to charm the object of his desire. Upon learning that Cyrano has a way with words, Christian asks him for his help in feeding him the requisite prose for winning over Roxanne’s affections, a proposal to which he agrees. And so, through a series of love letters and heartfelt soliloquies, Christian makes “his” feelings known to Roxanne, a development that leaves Cyrano forlorn save for whatever vicarious satisfaction he might derive from his secret assistance.

But will Roxanne and Christian live happily ever after? With a distant war raging and French fortunes in that conflict quickly fading, the new recruit may soon find himself on the front lines of a battlefield where the prospects of victory are looking increasingly bleak. Then there’s Duke de Guiche, who’s placing increasing pressure on Roxanne to wed him or face unpleasant consequences. And, through it all, Cyrano is left to sit back and watch, unable to express his feelings or unburden himself of the painful secret he carries. What impact will these conditions have on all involved? Will romance survive under these circumstances? And, if so, in what form?

The fair Roxanne (Haley Bennett, left) clandestinely reads a love letter delivered and allegedly penned by her tongue-tied would-be suitor, Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr., right), in a musical adaptation of a stage classic, “Cyrano.” Photo by Peter Mountain, courtesy © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

Poor Cyrano. His tragic circumstances ooze melancholy and despair. One can’t help but feel for him, especially since it seems that he’s destined to live out his life in perpetual solitude. He’s obviously sincere in his feelings, but he seems unable to do anything about them.

To be honest, though, he’s also been unwilling to do anything about his situation. Granted, he would have his hands full if he sought to do so, but that’s not to say his circumstances are unchangeable. After all, as the old saying goes, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” and that’s something Cyrano has yet to put to the test. And who knows – things might even work out.

How could Cyrano address this? Well, he could start by examining and seeking to alter his beliefs, for they provide the basis for shaping the nature of our existence, for better or worse. That’s an especially crucial notion when it comes to something as fundamental as manifesting what makes us feel happy and fulfilled, and romance is often at the heart of that. But Cyrano’s beliefs have kept that goal at bay, primarily because he doesn’t believe that he’s deserving of something so essential as love. In essence, Cyrano keeps getting in his own way. He allows the insults hurled at him to color his view of himself, and that keeps him stuck in place. But must he stay that way?

Changing our beliefs is the starting point when it comes to changing our lives. For instance, instead of looking upon the mockery and scorn thrust upon him as a source of hindrance, he could consider viewing it as a source of motivation, one that galvanizes him in his efforts to succeed at achieving his goal and silence the naysayers who contend he’ll fail or isn’t worthy of what he seeks. He’s clearly demonstrated his aptitude at becoming skillful at activities that someone of his stature shouldn’t be adept at, such as his swordsmanship. He’s also become quite accomplished at expressing romantic thoughts for someone who has no relationship experience. So why shouldn’t the same be true when it comes to surmounting a challenge like attaining success at love?

This is a classic case of seeing the glass as half empty or half full. But it’s a situation that won’t change on its own; Cyrano has to deliberately want to invoke it through his own efforts, starting with his beliefs. The question, of course, is, will he?

Powerful Duke de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn, left) pressures the fair Roxanne (Haley Bennett, right) to wed him or face unpleasant consequences in director Joe Wright’s musical adaptation of the stage classic, “Cyrano.” Photo by Peter Mountain, courtesy © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

One could argue that Cyrano’s efforts in this area are especially important given that his feelings for Roxanne are as plain as day, even if he hasn’t expressed them to anyone other than Le Bret. His desire for a loving relationship with Roxanne is indeed earnest, a reflection of his true self. It’s a desire infused with a potent degree of personal integrity. Yet he fails to follow through on it, and his lack of integrity on this point completely undermines the possibilities that are open to him if only he’ll allow them.

The result of this, of course, is regret. It validates the fact that the chances we don’t take are often more painful than the ones we do. And no amount of rationalization or settling for vicarious experiences will make up for this, as they inherently pale by comparison. That only serves to compound the pain and anguish we experience, making our tragedies that much more profound. And, unless Cyrano is willing to do something about that, it’s the destiny that unfortunately awaits him.

This is a also classic case of understanding that we must accept responsibility for what we create. As difficult as that may be, it’s how things work when it comes to materializing our reality, and, as this scenario illustrates, there are consequences associated with our beliefs and actions. One might be able to overlook the tragedy in something like this if it’s embarked upon with a willing blind eye, but that’s significantly harder to do when it’s approached with full awareness of what will ultimately unfold. Under circumstances like that, can any of us say that we would have anyone to blame but ourselves?

There are steps we can take to avoid such pitfalls. As noted earlier, changing our beliefs is a key first step, especially when it comes to addressing matters of fear and limitation. These issues are clearly holding Cyrano back, and he seems to understand that. But what is he doing to change the game? Not much, apparently. And that’s where some of the most profound sadness enters in this story. It really becomes an exercise in “…if only,” and that, unfortunately, can be one of the most frustrating and painful outcomes any of us could experience, truly a cautionary tale for the ages.

With his heart broken, lovelorn Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage, right) sits back and watches the object of his affections, the fair Roxanne (Haley Bennett, left), fall for another man, an affair he helped orchestrate, in “Cyrano.” Photo by Peter Mountain, courtesy © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

Conveying feelings of true love accurately and believably is a tall order, to be sure, and director Joe Wright’s musical adaptation of the stage classic Cyrano de Bergerac sometimes misses the mark. However, this lavish period piece production hits the target more often than it doesn’t, providing diehard romantics with a generally satisfying movie outing when it comes to exploring the themes of longing and unrequited love. The unfairly criticized musical numbers add a light, airy touch to this story, and, even though they may not be the most memorable compositions in the history of this genre (what musicals are these days?), they’re certainly inoffensive and enjoyable enough to merit their inclusion. What’s most gratifying about this picture, however, is its fine cast with admirable performances by Bennett, Harrison, Mendelsohn, and, most notably, Dinklage, who absolutely steals the show. “Cyrano” may not qualify as great cinema, but it’s fun, heartrending and easy on the eyes, and there’s nothing wrong with a film that can successfully pull that off.

For its efforts, the film garnered considerable acclaim during the recently completed awards season, especially in technical areas. The picture earned an Oscar nomination for best costume design, an accomplishment matched in the BAFTA Awards competition, where it also earned nods for achievements in hair/makeup and production design, as well as accolades for best British film. The performance of Peter Dinklage was also recognized as a stand-out, capturing nominations for best actor in the Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards, along with a Globe nod for best musical/comedy picture.

As we all come to discover at some point in our lives (or at least one would so hope), life passes us by too quickly to intentionally deny ourselves that which we want or need, and love is at the top of the list. It’s so sad to see so many longing for what’s missing, especially when we can take steps to attain it, if we only allow ourselves to do so. “Cyrano” shows this to us in hopes that we can avoid such a heartbreaking fate – and find what we’re looking for while we still have the chance.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Living a Life of Integrity

In a world where it’s become all too easy to make compromises for the sake of personal considerations to the detriment of people, practices and principles, it’s become almost unfathomable that there are still individuals out there who are ready and willing to stick to their guns. Their intentions, methods and actions may not always be obvious, but the underlying beliefs and motivations are nevertheless solidly and undeniably in place. Implementing initiatives based on those values might not always be easy, especially when under extreme pressure from those who have conflicting agendas and who wield the power to prevent those efforts from bearing fruit, but it doesn’t stop those committed souls from trying. Such are the dynamics in place in what is supposed to be a sacrosanct environment that’s being threatened by the dictates of a repressive authoritarian state in the new historical drama, “Servants” (“Sluzobnici”) (web site, trailer).

Life behind the Iron Curtain in 1980 was a stunningly bleak existence. Finding ways to be at peace, let alone happy and fulfilled, under the authoritarian governments of the day was indeed challenging – and often dangerous, what with the constant scrutiny citizens were subjected to by menacing secret police organizations. Even ostensibly innocent activities, like the ability to practice one’s own religion, were under perpetual threat. That was especially true for those at the top of these institutions, those who spread the word of their faith to their flocks of eager followers. Their very ability to carry out this mission was itself challenging enough in light of the dim view the state held about religion generally. And anyone who preached spiritual concepts perceived as flying in the face of secular state dogma were censured or removed from their posts, if not worse.

Such are the strict circumstances under which a Roman Catholic seminary operates in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. In the wake of the country’s political uprising of 1968, when attempted liberalization efforts were flaunted in the face of Soviet overseers who later brutally squelched the initiative, authorities have severely cracked down on any alleged seditious activities or the spread of subversive ideas, a policy applied across the board in Czechoslovakian society, even in the churches. In fact, the seminary’s ability to stay open and functioning has even been looked upon by the institution’s leadership as a tremendous privilege, one that high-ranking staff members have diligently sought to protect, even if that sometimes means making deals with the devil.

Newly arrived Czechoslovakian seminary students Juraj (Samuel Skyva, left) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic, right) find themselves in an environment in which growing resistance to Communist Party dictates is spreading like a virus, as seen in director Ivan Ostrochovský’s “Servants” (“Sluzobnici”). Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

But can the power of ideas truly be contained? It’s an ongoing struggle for officialdom, one that continually forces government authorities to employ drastic measures to keep under wraps. However, it’s even more of a challenge in a place like the seminary, where thoughts, beliefs and principles are the essence of what its teachers and students deal in – and that are difficult to suppress through what they share with one another and their congregations. Indeed, how can the empowering message of Christ be diluted to avoid being in opposition of the dictates of the state and still ring true? In fact, wasn’t that at the core of what Jesus sought to convey through His teachings? How can His present-day disciples be expected to do any different and remain true to their callings and those notions?

That’s the challenge now being put to the leadership of the seminary. The head of the facility, Dean Tiber (Vladimír Strnisko), walks a tightrope as he seeks to be true to the faith while keeping authorities from shuttering the institution. He frequently meets with Dr. Ivan (Vlad Ivanov), a ruthless secret police interrogator who scrupulously investigates any suspicious activity and never hesitates to employ whatever tactics are needed to obtain information, seek atonement from transgressors or silence those unwilling to comply with government policies. It’s troubling for the head cleric, but he begrudgingly does what he has to do keep the seminary open.

Try as he might, however, the dean is up against mounting pressure from both sides. There’s a quietly growing sentiment among seminarians to resist the will of the government, and it gains strength with every new arrival, including two new students, longtime friends Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic). In addition, one of the faculty, Fr. Coufar (Vladimír Obsil), has been holding meetings with students to discuss religious teachings that have not been sanctioned by authorities, as well as “secretly” performing unauthorized ordinations. To help counteract these developments, seminary administrators have appointed confessors to work with the students, such as the kindly yet often-exasperated priest (Milan Mikulčík) assigned to Juraj and Michal. All of which has attracted the increased scrutiny of Dr. Ivan and his minions, raising the tension within the institution to a discreet but palpable level.

The strain mounts on everyone as the story plays out. It seems as though nobody is doing (or able to do) what he wants. They have all become “servants” to ideologies and/or institutions with which they have issues. Do they truly believe in what they’re doing, or are they just going through the motions to save their hides? And at what costs does all this come? Their futures are in question. Their integrity, reputation and personal karma are all on the line. Even their psychological well-being and physical health are in jeopardy, as evidenced, for example, by the worsening and uncomfortable dermatological issues Dr. Ivan faces over time. Is this indeed service in support of a noble cause? These are the many questions that those caught up in this toxic scenario must sort out for themselves.

Even meals at a seminary in which dissent is growing against the Czechoslovakian Communist government manage to become a controversial activity as seen in director Ivan Ostrochovský’s second feature, “Servants” (“Sluzobnici”). Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

When one pursues a calling in a philosophical discipline like the priesthood, it’s incumbent upon those who do so to follow the teachings, traditions and messages of said vocation. After all, the dissemination of ideas – especially uplifting and empowering ones – is at the heart of what this undertaking is all about. This is particularly important in a repressed society, where the people need hope and comfort when under the thumb of totalitarian rule. Indeed, why would one pursue such an innately virtuous venture only to end up shortchanging one’s principles, essentially lying to oneself and engaging in compromised practices that are in service to an institution whose existence and purpose fly in the face of what one initially sought to accomplish?

That’s what the seminary faculty and students are being asked to do here. Telling parishioners what the government wants them to hear is the mission they’ve been tasked with, a trade-off to allow the institution to remain open. But is such a practice realistic? Can the seminarians live with themselves under such coercive conditions?

This is where looking to one’s heart comes into play, especially the beliefs that govern our conscience and actions. Understanding this essential, because it’s crucial to how our reality will unfold, dictating the nature and direction of our existence. And this consideration is integral to situations where intentionally seeking the desired manifestation of one’s mindset is fundamentally at the heart of the undertaking.

In a context like religion, for instance, this premise is central for being honest with oneself, to live life with a sense of integrity and personal truth. Those who minister to their parishioners are meant to set an example for them in hopes that they will follow suit. But that’s far from easy when these spiritual practitioners are being forced into doing so with their hands tied. How can they deliver inspirational messages of empowerment when authorities specifically tell them that they can’t because such notions conflict with official government dictates? The “service” the seminarians were meant to provide is essentially co-opted, replaced by dogma that blatantly contradicts the teachings they were meant to impart.

As a result, the seminarians are effectively being asked to seriously compromise their beliefs. The moral dilemma in this thus places a heavy burden on their shoulders. It again raises the question of how can they live with themselves? And, in turn, what are they supposed to do about it?

Of course, if we use our beliefs to create our reality, then one might legitimately ask, why would anyone want to create dicey circumstances like these in the first place? That’s a good question. But, if we look to the conditions under which Jesus lived His life, there are some uncanny parallels. Maybe the Czechoslovakian seminarians are having to relive Christ’s experience as a means to drive home His teachings in a society where the prevailing conditions are not all that different from those under which the prophet himself lived. Circumstances sometimes have a tendency to remain unchanged over time, and often the only way to bring about reform is to challenge them directly, as the seminarians do here. This is not to suggest that it will necessarily be easy, but making such an effort may be the best means for implementing transformation. One could say that this may be the most earnest way of being a servant to the cause to help bring about the implementation of these notions, challenging though the process may be.

At the opening conclave of the 1980 school year, students at a Bratislava, Czechoslovakia seminary are welcomed into an increasingly tense environment as opposition to the Communist government slowly simmers in “Servants” (“Sluzobnici”), now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Ironically, those seeking to impose their will upon the seminarians are themselves slaving away as servants in their own right and not necessarily in the furthering of a just cause. Individuals like Dr. Ivan, for example, dutifully carry out their missions, but at what cost? Are they truly fulfilled in what they do, spending their days propping up a brutal and corrupt regime? And in exchange for what – a better apartment or a few perks denied to the average citizen? Is that worth it, especially when one sees what it’s doing to them? One need only look to Dr. Ivan’s health issues to see what his brand of servitude is doing to him. One can’t help but wonder how long he’ll be able to keep doing what he does until the effects overtake him, especially if he knows deep down that what he’s doing is fundamentally wrong.

In the end, the only way to effectively resolve these conundrums is to get honest with ourselves – and that applies across the board in this scenario. The question, of course, is, can those in the seminary and officialdom bring themselves to do so? Can they take a good, hard look at their beliefs, see where they’re in need of alteration, and then implement measures to change them to correct these circumstances? It depends on how adept they are at following their hearts and how ready they are to be their true selves and live their lives with integrity. It may well be an ambitious undertaking, but it’s one truly worth considering, given that their souls might be at stake.

Chilling and thoughtful, director Ivan Ostrochovský’s second narrative feature spins an edge-of-your-seat tale while simultaneously delivering an insightful meditation on what it means “to serve.” This high-stakes morality play is a tale told in the shadows, one perfectly suited to the picture’s magnificent black-and-white cinematography, which alone is worth the price of admission. The eloquent framing of each shot and the filmmaker’s masterful execution of the picture’s mise-en-scène element are among the finest I have ever witnessed, and they enhance the storytelling by skillfully embellishing the actions playing out on screen. Some may find the pacing somewhat sluggish, but this deliberately employed tactic significantly adds to the slowly simmering narrative, upping the tension as events unfold. What I most liked about this offering, however, is the deft handling of the themes that underlie the principal storyline, adding a level of depth that takes the film to an entirely different level. It’s unfortunate that “Servants” has not received wider play or recognition than it has thus far, but, now that it’s available for streaming online, here’s hoping it garners the attention it genuinely deserves.

The incidents depicted in this film may have happened some years ago, but it behooves us to remember the kinds of events that were once commonplace. As recent history has all too clearly shown us, actions we may have naïvely come to consider unthinkable can rear their ugly heads quickly and with devastating results. That’s what makes films like “Servants” so important – they remind us of what we have and how preciously we must guard whatever gains we have made. Should we take those developments for granted, we could be in store for losing them, an undeniably rude awakening in which our very ability to think for ourselves and believe what we want to believe may be put on the line. Indeed, if we take such things for granted, we could end up becoming the kinds of servants on display here. And who would truly want that? 

A complete review is available by clicking here.

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