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SERVIAM – I WILL SERVE

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This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian) Deutsch (German)

by Ruth Mader

grade: 7.5

Serviam – I will serve immediately strikes us with its shots (all shot strictly with a fixed camera) of the schoolyard, but also of the interiors, so cold and perfectly tidy that they immediately convey a certain unease. A little girl’s voice recites a prayer. In the boarding school, life seems to proceed quietly and without any particularly noteworthy events. The feeling that, however, something terrible is about to happen accompanies us from beginning to end. At the festival Sotto le Stelle dell’Austria 2023.

Disturbing secrets

Directly from the Locarno Film Festival 2022 and, finally, also premiering in Italy on the occasion of the festival Sotto le Stelle dell’Austria 2023, Serviam – I will serve is the most recent feature film by director Ruth Mader, made five years after Life Guidance and which aroused great interest, both for the delicate themes it deals with and for its rigorous mise-en-scene, as well as for Maria Dragus’ excellent performance. Yes, because, in fact, in realising this work, the director drew heavily from what has been done in the past (both in Austria and in the rest of the world), while at the same time creating something totally personal and with its own, marked personality.

The story, then, takes place in the 1980s, in a prestigious Catholic girls’ boarding school. A young nun (Maria Dragus, precisely), seems to be the only person to have maintained a strong, very strong religious faith, in a world where patriarchy and capitalism seem to play a central role in everyday life. Martha, one of the girls studying at the boarding school, also seems to have a strong religious calling and, consequently, the nun decides to give her a cilice, which, however, causes her serious injuries. Convinced that these are stigmata, the woman keeps Martha segregated on the fifth floor of the building, making everyone believe that the girl is, in fact, temporarily in Spain with her parents. How long will she manage to keep the truth hidden?

Serviam – I will serve immediately strikes the viewer from the very first frames, thanks to the shots (all shot strictly with a fixed camera) of the schoolyard, but also of the interiors, so cold and perfectly tidy that they immediately convey a certain unease. A little girl’s voice recites a prayer. In the boarding school, life seems to proceed quietly and without any particularly noteworthy events. The feeling that, however, something terrible is about to happen accompanies us from beginning to end.

Dark, cramped corridors along which the characters walk, while being almost always filmed from behind, immediately make us think of Jessica Hausner’s Hotel (2004), in which the depicted environments play an equally important role. At the same time, however, the all-female boarding school, keeper of the most unsuspected and disturbing secrets, clearly reminds us of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). And yet, Serviam – I will serve does not allow itself to be intimidated by its ‘predecessors’ and carries on with dignity a story set approximately forty years ago, but also extremely topical. A story in which a woman, completely alone, tries to defend at all costs a reality that seems about to vanish forever. Often also by making very, very serious mistakes.

It is no coincidence that Ruth Mader decided to set her Serviam – I will serve in an all-female boarding school (let us not forget that she herself, as a child, studied in a Catholic boarding school). Within this reality in which time seems to have stood still, in fact, the women who have chosen this life are not even considered women, as they can never have children (particularly noteworthy, in this regard, is the scene in which the father of one of the girls – played by Udo Samel – talks to the young nun, criticising both her educational methods and her very lifestyle). And so, the religious fanaticism staged here immediately takes on much broader and universal meanings, becoming an important metaphor for society and the world we live in. Ruth Mader knows very well what she wants to communicate to us, and in her Serviam – I will serve she does so without fear of exaggeration or of causing us much, much harm. Can there ever be a chance of redemption?

Original title: Serviam – Ich will dienen
Directed by: Ruth Mader
Country/year: Austria / 2022
Running time: 106’
Genre: drama, thriller
Cast: Maria Dragus, Anna Elisabeth Berger, Sophia Gómez-Schreiber, Fritz Karl, Leona Lindinger, Maria Lohn, Petra Morzé, Monica Reyes, Udo Samel, Florian Teichtmeister
Screenplay: Martin Leidenfrost, Ruth Mader
Cinematography: Christine A. Maier
Produced by: Epo-Film, Ruth Mader Filmproduktion

Info: the page of Serviam – I will serve on iMDb; the website of Serviam – I will serve