Arts Bohdan Sláma's Four Suns opens in Czech cinemas
Bohdan Sláma, born in 1967, has long been described as one of the most important up & coming directors in the Czech Republic. The filmmaker received early recognition and acclaim for work like Wild Bees, Something Like Happiness and The Country Teacher and has become known for naturalistic dramas with elements of comedy – a trademark he upholds in his latest movie Čtyri slunce (Four Suns), which had its US premiere earlier this year at Sundance and its European premiere at Rotterdam. On Thursday, after much anticipation, Four Suns opened in Czech cinemas.
The film tells the story of several individuals – “country losers” as one critic describes them – largely ordinary people in a small town struggling with problems of everyday life. The main couple in the picture are Jára and Jana (played by Jaroslav Plesl and Anna Geislerová) who struggle to make ends meet, run into major difficulties raising their troubled son who is in puberty, and face difficulties keeping the old flame alive. The story is told in a realistic manner viewers have come to expect from Sláma and is largely unromantic. But although he shows his characters’ in all their failings, it doesn’t mean that as a director Bohdan Sláma, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t care about them.
I spoke with the director ahead of the film’s premiere:
“I always feel that shooting is just trying to find the truth of a situation from our lives: how we are able to feel situations between people and in relationships. We were trying to find, in each scene, emotional truth. You have to come to extreme situations, extreme moments and try to be as truthful as possible. Not just to ‘show’ something but to feel it and express it. That’s how we try and tell the story.”
For an analogy, one might find similar characters (or bleakness) in the films of Mike Leigh (Naked, Secrets & Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky), which also combine humour with darker elements, tragicomedy or comic tragedy. Sláma is considerably gentler in his approach but that said it is not like Four Suns is bursting with optimism: Jára is fired from his job for smoking pot, Jana gets into a dead-end affair with her son’s teacher, and Jerry (a younger family acquaintance played brilliantly by Jiří Mádl) slowly flushes his life down the toilet in drugs and punk music. And then there is Karel.
Karel deserves a special mention as a character who at times appears lost in the story and at other times crucial. A New Age shaman of sorts in a ratty sweater and old glasses, he appears the most ill-equipped to function in the real world. It is the film’s most consistent mystery that no one knows whether he is “in control” or completely off the rails. The character is played by Czech actor Karel Roden, who told me this:
“He may strike some people as being a real weirdo or very strange, because he can’t explain the things that he does. He only feels that has to do something and acts accordingly.”
“The whole movie we look to him as a kind of loser which he should appear to be. I really had this idea, though, that Karel could turn things around.”
Despite moments of brilliance in Four Suns, a number of Czech reviewers and reviews have been less than charitable, chiding the filmmaker for making a darker movie where the comedy is less effective: it’s a matter of taste. Certainly the film is not without some rougher patches, slower pacing in the middle, for example, driving the plot to such a stand-still you’ll wonder whether it may just end unexpectedly – without any resolution at all. But Sláma is too clever a director not to work things through: the third act peaks with an unexpected tragedy which throws all of the earlier story into high relief: all of the arguments, earlier disappointments, difficulties of marital and material and small town life suddenly pale: infidelities are forgotten, as are clashes with the son – who has followed the downward path of rebellion. Suddenly, the earlier emotional quagmire is no longer quite as hopeless.
Then, there are the performances. Roden, one of the country’s best known actors who non-Czech viewers may recall is an undefeatable Rasputin in Hellboy or is a chilling killer in 15 Minutes, is almost unrecognizable as the New Age Karel whose life seemingly revolves around collecting ordinary or perhaps magical rocks. Fifteen-year-old Marek Šácha, meanwhile, does a remarkable job of playing Jára and Jana’s son, all the more because he is a non-actor: yet his performance as a teen slipping into delinquency is flawless. The film’s producer Pavel Strnad:
“We found Marek Šácha the small town of Písek. He is just a regular student and a non-actor, someone with no previous acting experience. Bohdan wanted someone who would be really natural for this part and who could have good chemistry with the actors. Marek was a perfect choice. When I saw his rehearsals I was surprised. This is something that Bohdan does quite often: have one or two characters played by non-actors. He believes it gives the actors on the set something they have to react to. Šácha is only 15 but what a great job he did.”
Anna Geislerová also deserves mention for her turn as the frustrated Jana: she burns bright in many parts of the film but is never more stunning than when the family is touched by disaster. Here’s how Anna Geislerova described the situation faced by her character:
“I think that problems and certain crises are things that 90 percent of people have. You, him, her, everyone knows what it’s about: we’ve all been in tougher spots at some point. I don’t believe there is someone who exists who has not had some kind of a crisis in their relationship, family, with their children and with their own vision of the future. So I think that my character was a tired of the life she was leading; I also know what it means to be tired or unsatisfied! So, in fact it was difficult to create a person everyone could understand but it was also easy because I could feel like her.”
Like the story itself, making Four Suns was clearly intense. But working with Bohdan Sláma is also said to be an unforgettable experience: on small sets in real locations in towns not unlike Sláma’s own. Anna Geislerová says this:
“The locations are very close to where Bohdan lives, that’s also very significant for him. He doesn’t want to travel a lot and wants to be near his house and his children and so after shooting we all went to his house to drink and it was nice. I love shooting outside of Prague because everyone is more concentrated: you don’t go home, you don’t go to the theatre, you don’t go shopping. You just go to your room or your hotel or Bohdan’s house and everyone is more concentrated on the movie.”
As for some of the claims there are not enough humorous moments in Four Suns? The actress disagrees:
“I am surprised that some people don’t think it is a funny movie. Of course it’s a hard film, it isn’t easy, but I say it’s like life. When you are dying I imagine that you must remember 10 or 20 greatest moments of your life and the rest of it you forget. So I think this film has as much humor in it ‘as life itself’. You don’t laugh every day like ‘Haw haw’ buckled over. It’s just enough, the humor.”
Four Suns is in cinemas now: if you’re a fan of Sláma’s earlier work to a degree you already know a little bit of what to expect. In this film he returns to familiar ground but also takes a few risks.