Bohdan Slama, the great hope among the Czech Republic’s latest generation of helmers, kicks off the year with “Four Suns,” a quiet, personal tale that seems less likely to ignite international interest than his previous efforts, “Something Like Happiness” and “A Country Teacher,” despite being selected as the first Czech feature ever to compete at Sundance. Inspired by the death of his son (one of five, providing a possible play-on-words clue to the film’s title), Slama assembles an introspective but not particularly memorable melodrama in which the characters do their best to overcome their human failings.
Chief among this ragged yet realistically multi-faceted ensemble is Jara (Jaroslav Plesl), who does his best to serve as a good example to his 16-year-old son, Vena (Marek Sacha), but falls victim to frequent lapses of judgment on his own. It’s not easy for Jara to maintain an air of authority about the perils of drug use, for example, after losing his factory job for smoking pot in the men’s room.
The man-child syndrome, so popular in contempo American cinema, clearly knows no borders. Filtered through Slama’s self-doubt and questioning, however, this state of stunted midlife maturity becomes a source of potential tragedy rather than comedy. Yes, it’s amusing to watch a 37-year-old man give in to the sort of impulses most people outgrow as teenagers, and yet, the film asks, how can someone incapable of watching out for himself possibly be responsible for the well-being of others?
In Jara’s case, he has assembled a support network of adults on which to depend. For starters, he’s remarried to Jana (Anna Geislerova, “Something Like Happiness”), who tirelessly keeps the house in order, but also proves susceptible to weakness, as when she unwisely goes home with Vena’s class teacher (Igor Chmela). Only longtime friend and mentor Karel (Karel Roden) seems to have the grown-up thing figured out. Even then, however, Karel’s guidance is steered by invisible auras, magic rocks and other hippie influences.
Still, it is Karel who has a vision of someone getting run over in a car accident, a premonition that will prove accurate, even if his ability to untangle how to prevent it is too scatterbrained to do much good. Besides, given the disarray at home, Vena feels far more comfortable in the company of bad influence Jerry (Jiri Madl) and his gang.
Ultimately, a father can only go so far to protect his children — a lesson Slama seems to be coming to terms with in the process of making this film, and one that battles the far scarier idea that children are doomed to repeat their parents’ mistakes. (“Search inside yourself,” Vena’s teacher tells Jara. “Kids repeat their role models.”)
In keeping with his earlier work, “Four Suns” unfolds in the vicinity of the helmer’s own home, embracing the rickety lives of the working-class people with whom he so deeply identifies. Shot on 35mm and framed in artful widescreen, the film celebrates the humanity of characters so easily ridiculed by others, emphasizing the humor of their day-to-day travails without belittling them in the process. As such, the film brims with bits of color and detail that linger longer than the story itself.