"The City of the Sun": Jumping Up and Down in Cages By Peter Hornung

in 6th Wiesbaden Festival of Central and Eastern European Film - goEast

by Peter Hornung

The factory is shut down. Sold to an Italian company. The workers are dismissed. Some will be able to get back to their jobs, after retraining. But, for most of them, the future looks bleak. Ostrava, a provincial town in the Czech Republic, is not a boomtown in the new Europe. But four friends don’t intend to give up. They have learned the lesson of globalisation and are ready to become entrepreneurs themselves. With borrowed money they buy an old truck and start a transportation business, moving households, buying old stuff in villages, renovating and selling it for a profit. At least, that’s the plan, but business is bad; no one has any money to hire a truck, after a few weeks the truck is stolen, and the four friends are not able to get it back.

Martin Sulik calls his film The City of the Sun (Slunecní stat), which is an ironic statement regarding the living conditions of his protagonists. In another film at the Wiesbaden festival, also about joblessness, Labour Equals Freedom from Slovenia, one of the characters is told, “A jobless man has no friends”. Martin Sulik shows us how friendship is tested in a situation where every man is his own best friend. But since The City of the Sun is also a comedy, friendship in the end prevails. The film ends with a strange but compelling metaphor for the kind of lives the four friends lead: in a playground for children there are trampolines inside cages made of mesh wire. Here, one of the friends begins to jump very slowly, then the others join him, and in the end we see all four frantically jumping up and down behind the wire. It’s like their lives: they are moving and trying all the time, but don’t get forward.

At first sight, this film by Martin Sulik seemed a little disappointing because it lacks some of the trademarks he used in his previous films (Everything I Like, The Garden). There are no surreal scenes in The City of the Sun; there isn’t any little magic that can transform the lives of the protagonists. But this down-to-earth attitude is the special strength of the film. It never transcends the lives of normal people, people whom Sulik depicts very carefully: his four friends border on clichés (the womaniser, the family man, the unstable jealous husband and the man left by his wife who now works for a sex-phone-line), but Sulik’s empathy saves them from being simply stock characters. He shows their family lives, and the strain joblessness puts on their wives and children, too. In their personal lives, it’s mainly a struggle for dignity: how to react when suddenly the wife is the one who is earning the money. What to do when there is no money to buy a dress for the daughter’s first communion, and how to demand respect from a teenage son if you are in a bad situation yourself. Sulik doesn’t solve these problems; there are no happy endings for anyone. They are jumping up and down without moving forward in their relationships too.

So The City of the Sun is not an optimistic film, although it gives the viewer an upbeat feeling. The film also has no solution for the overall situation. It is mentioned that globalisation or the membership of the Czech Republic in the European Union is to blame for the bad state of the economy, but, on the other hand, the new Italian owners of the plant re-hire workers after a training program, which the family man among our friends finally accepts. Another one moves away to Slovakia where the economic situation is not much better than in the Czech Republic. But everyone is at least moving. What is most the convincing thing about Sulik’s film is the way he really loves his protagonists, with all their faults and shortcomings. It’s a film about “la condition humaine” without any utopian visions, but one that believes in the future of the simple man.