If Maria von Trapp found Austrian monastic life a little suffocating in The Sound of Music, she would have been completely suffocated—probably by someone else’s hand—in the harsh Catholic spiritual prison that houses Serviam – I Will Serve, where all sorts of green hills are out of sight, pain is a sacrosanct priority and perceived problematic flibbertigibbets are dealt with by far more ruthless means than cheerful singing. Only the third fictitious film in 20 years from accomplished Austrian formalist Ruth Mader, this extremely well-made chiller announces itself in advance as more than your average exercise in nunsploitation with its stark, austere staging and hits religious studies through surreal, Bible-based animated interludes.
Yet Serviam’s bifurcated impulses between bona fide ecclesiastical critique and outright horror—replete with screeching, doomy strings and warped sister jump scares—never coalesce into something that quite lives up to either score. What remains is a very beautiful mood piece that’s neither particularly frightening nor particularly thought-provoking on matters of faith, devotion and sanctified corruption, though its expert atmosphere will carry it far into the festival circuit after its initial mainstream runs in Locarno and Sarajevo. In keeping with the film itself, distributors’ interest will be split between boutique arthouse and genre-focused platforms, with the latter likely to play its scariest components, not least the unnerving presence of Romanian star Maria Dragus (“Graduation,” ” Mademoiselle Paradis”) as a nun who seemingly kills with silence.
Although Serviam never specifies its setting, the fabrics and fashion alone are enough for viewers to place the events in the early 1980s—and there are no modern technological devices to be seen, either. though in an environment so punitively restrictive it seems less of an era-specific marker. However, those more familiar with the Austrian education system will have a more accurate context of the period. The country’s single-sex schools are now banned, while Catholic boarding schools have largely been abolished: Just outside Vienna, the expensive, oppressive all-girls institution here fits both of those descriptors and is populated by the daughters of wealthy, single parents who aren’t necessarily devout. , but they keep their children educated under the most exceptional conditions possible.
Young nun and housekeeper Filin (Dragus) ensures that this is the case in every sense of the word, ruling the school – seemingly single-handedly – with an iron fist and allowing a spirit of sadistic, selfish bullying to prevail among the students. The main victim of this is the shy, sweet Sandra (Anna Elizabeth Berger), tormented by her peers in a way that Filin approves of: “They just tolerate you here,” she spits at the defenseless girl who is guilty of nothing but that, that it failed to demonstrate its faith in an appropriately fervent manner. (Still unsure of her commitment to Christ, she saves and keeps her weekly shared waffles in a box by her bed.)
Not that Filin is much nicer to her pets. Impressed by the devotion of the immigrant Spanish student model Marta (Sofia Gomez-Schreiber), she encourages the pre-teen girl to wear a masochistic barbed-wire penitence belt: When Marta eagerly complies with severe bodily consequences, the panicked nurse isolates her in a separate wing of the school, lying to staff and students about her disappearance. This spiraling ruse has tragic consequences, although Mader and Martin Leidenfrost’s screenplay remains coyly non-specific about the nature and extent of the physical, psychological or sexual abuse that takes place behind closed doors.
It also takes the screenplay a while to choose a leading point of view, ultimately adopted by the strong-willed, increasingly suspicious student Sabine (a stoically impressive newcomer Leona Lindinger), whose independent streak is expressed by the colorful argyle socks she wears (diligent raised, of course) in her gray school uniform. Yet just as Serviam seems to be building to a tense, satisfying cat-and-mouse game between Sabine and Philin, it also abandons that vow, instead embarking on an ambiguous path to redemption that is morally intriguing, but narratively anticlimactic . Is Phillin a psychotic demon in a hill, or a horrifying and horrifying product of old-school Catholicism that values ostentatious denial and self-discipline over sincere benevolence? For all the creepy physical poise and quiet menace of Dragus’ performance, there isn’t enough about the character to draw a conclusion.
The film’s considerable pleasures, therefore, lie in its meticulous architectural construction – which may not be down to Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser’s exceptional modernist production design, though it accounts for many of the film’s most haunting images. Eschewing the towering, shadowy gothic spaces and niches usually associated with the monastic horror genre, Serviam takes place almost entirely in bright, square, unapologetically geometric rooms where crucifixes are complemented by neon strip lighting and grids of wood paneling. giving the inhabitants no place to hide from God, Filin or whoever comes to judge them most cruelly.
Talented cinematographer Christine A. Meyer (“Quo Vadis, Aida?”) plays along with strictly symmetrical compositions and streams of bright, somehow airless light; composer Manfred Plesl cuts through all this visual austerity with the eerie, screaming orchestral beats of his score, the film’s most persistently genre-conforming component. Only the film’s naively handmade animated breathers, visualizing such biblical imagery as the Lamb of God and Ezekiel’s cherubim, feel out of place here—not only because of their incongruous aesthetics, but also because of their hints of a specific biblical engagement that the rest of Serviam “I will serve,” for all its eerie Catholic theatrics, tends to disappear.