The Sun in a Net (Slnko v sieti) Review
Štefan Uher's The Sun in a Net (Slnko v sieti) arrives on DVD from Second Run with some significantly optimistic yet also almost unhealthy expectations. Those attuned to the label's impressive work in bringing Czechoslovakian film and, more generally, Eastern European film to English language viewers should perk up at reading the SR description that this is "consistently ranked amongst the greatest films in the history of Czechoslovak cinema" as well as being the initial spark of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Combined with Second Run's usual curatorial brilliance that sort of reputation can be a major selling point. Trouble is, The Sun in a Net is actually pretty obscure, as is its director. So while there's not really too much out there about the picture leading up to this release, the promise and potential of it being a major work ready for Western discovery seems quite enticing. That's the kind of unusual position now available to Second Run - a result of so consistently introducing us to great things we may not have known even existed prior to the small label sharing them with anyone in possession of about ten quid and a love of world cinema.
The difficult question then arises as to whether The Sun in a Net is still deserving of initially being identified as among the greatest films ever in its country. That's tough for any movie, particularly when we're not talking about a three-hour epic along the lines of Marketa Lazarová. Uher's film is a ninety-minute exercise built around youth that subsequently expands (however obliquely) into Slovakian culture and politics. Whether the messages and ideas remain as clear and meaningful now as when it was made has to be a consideration. Perhaps certain elements, technical and otherwise, of the movie retain their power while others have necessarily faded. Perhaps, too, that the aggregation of youth-oriented films from the 1960s which chipped away at barriers now completely unfamiliar has dulled some of the impact. What does remain, above all else and impressively so, is the collection of delicately chosen, frequently striking images.
At the center of the film is a teenage boy nicknamed Fayolo. He lives with his unseen parents in an apartment building in the Slovakian city of Bratislava. Also in his building is Bela, a pretty blonde teen with a younger brother and a blind mother. Fayolo and Bela retreat to the roof often, including for the film's early scenes exploring a solar eclipse. This clear preoccupation with light and darkness, vision and blindness becomes a hardly hidden motif throughout the film. If one so desires the political parallels reveal themselves here and elsewhere. It mostly depends on just how much the viewer is willing or inclined to attach certain ideas to what plays out on the screen. Everything is concealed a little but not quite enough so as to distract entirely from the fact that the film was made in a socialist republic by and about a minority ethnic group.
When Fayolo travels to a farm in another city to work during the summer, both he and Bela take up with others. She's seen with local lady-killer Peto while he turns his attention to a co-worker named Jana. Separated by distance, Fayolo and Bela manage to still affect one another. He writes her a letter comparing himself to Robinson Cruose. She then shares the letter with Peto. Meanwhile, her family's past crosses Fayolo's present when he happens to meet Bela's grandfather, who's estranged from his son. Similarly, the story behind her mother's blindness becomes more clear to Bela when she overhears her talking about the incident. Bela's role in the ordeal is a bit underplayed but not to ill effect. It seems to inform at least the end of the picture, creating a poignancy just when things are starting to feel chilly and detached. Having the mother's blindness also act as an insight into the family dynamic, from the younger son lying to create a better mental image for her to the father demonstrating little patience, establishes tiny splinters in their daily lives that inject a discomforting sadness.
A preoccupation with photography, particularly capturing portraits of hands, is another sort of unexplained quirk that Fayolo has. The metaphorical intent behind this carries a number of possibilities, but the side effect of it making Fayolo seem more introspective and thoughtful is also a valid consideration. He is not an especially well-drawn character and yet the overall impression of him allows us to relate to Fayolo. Maybe parallels are invented from what we do see. Some degree of subtlety has to rule the day, rewarding the perceptive and repeat viewers. For instance, his entire journey to work at the farm seems to have come as a means of reasserting a loyalty to the party. It's mentioned at one point that his father is a member of the "intelligentsia" and the insinuation is that he is not looked at favorably because of this. So for Fayolo to move away from this perception he presumably needs to be a comrade and do comrade things. Whether this is a true reflection of the character's feelings or a mere concession the film makes to the censor is unclear.
More certain is the tremendous impact the musical and sound element has on the overall effect of the movie. From the early, almost industrial-sounding noises that make up Ilja Zeljenka's score to the recurring use of American pop music on the radio, this must sound like very few other 1962 films, Czechoslovakian or otherwise. It's kind of a trip to hear "Tequila" and "The Twist" in this climate. It adds a universality to what's on the screen while also giving an insight into part of the cultural diet of the setting and time. If the ears are certainly stimulated then so are the eyes. It's probably here, in the visually fluid and lyrical nature of The Sun in a Net, that most earns the picture a reputation which, as stated earlier, may precede it. The contrast between city and country which might should be there never really announces itself. Instead, there's a casual beauty to everything. The rooftops staring into the sun are framed and shot exquisitely, as are both the fisherman's pontoon boat along the shore and the variety of workers toiling away in a field. Once you've seen The Sun in a Net, really seen it, you need not wonder whether such bold pronouncements as those found on the back cover of this release are undue.
Making The Sun in a Net available on DVD for the first time in the UK (and it's not out in R1 so far either), Second Run offers a region-free PAL on a dual-layered disc. It is spine number 081 in the catalog.
The black and white transfer comes from a recent restoration and indeed looks pretty grand. The 1.33:1 image is free of damage, with strong stability and prime contrast. It appears quite crisp and detailed. Some readers may be aware that Second Run has not yet released a single Blu-ray edition, not out of choice exactly but because of financial necessity. So it's easy, if a little unfair, to watch something from the label and occasionally wish it was available in high definition. While most any film would ideally look better in HD, what I found in this instance was that the existing image is so good that I never once lamented the lack of that hi-def boost. For some that may make it even harder to cope with what we have here but my intended point is that The Sun in a Net impresses mightily here even on DVD.
Audio is great as well. The language is Slovak and it's a two-channel Dolby Digital mono track. We hear wonderful sound effects and music throughout, and they emerge cleanly here minus any complaint. English subtitles are optional. They are white in color and quite comprehensive as far as I could tell.
There's an on-disc appreciation (11:36) by filmmaker Peter Strickland. The director of such films as Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio also appeared on Second Run's Szindbád release in a similar role and he's a welcome, well-spoken voice. What's missing in scholarly analysis is made up for in enthusiasm. It's nice to hear a contemporary director show an interest in films like these.
Speaking of more scholarly insight, the included 20-page booklet contains a lengthy essay by Peter Hames on the film and director Štefan Uher. It's another good and helpful read from Hames, who has been a frequent, invaluable contributor to Second Run's booklets over the years.