September 25, 2020  (Web Review)

City of the Sun

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Rati Oneli’s ghostly documentary is set in Chiatura, a city in western Georgia. Chiatura was once the source of up to 50% of the world’s manganese. But the collapse of the Soviet Union hollowed out the town’s mining industry, and about a third of the population. Oneli’s haunting, stark images—so rich in texture with light and deep shadows—captures the thin soul of what’s left in a place literally crumbling, where dreams seem doomed to die in emptiness. City of the Sun focuses on four individuals. Zurab, a frustrated music teacher, moonlights—in the film’s most stunning sequences—as a one-man wrecking crew climbing dangerous heights to hammer away at the ruins of a huge old building, extracting iron rods he can sell as scrap. (Someone keeps stealing his hauls, driving him further into impoverishment.) Also breaking through hard walls is Archil, a remaining miner whom we see in extraordinary scenes deep inside the Earth. Back on the surface, however, Archil is an actor in community theater productions. In one unforgettable passage, Oneli follows Archil as he gets out of the mine and walks across town to the theater space where he’s in a current production. He falls asleep in an inky darkness until it’s time to get ready. The other two figures Oneli tracks are young girls hoping to qualify for spots on an Olympics team. There aren’t many scenes involving them, but their aspirations unfolding in what amounts to a dying city is poignant. There are some moments that could be from a Christopher Guest satire, except they’re real. A dinner involving perhaps a dozen middle-age friends sitting at a long table in a rented hall becomes inadvertently comical when Zarub, hired to entertain the group by singing to canned background music, gets no response when he introduces a song he wrote himself. Oneli’s approach to cutting City of the Sun into narrative shape is jarringly, intentionally surreal. We jump from one thing to the next without smooth transitions or carefully constructed overall context. In that way, the film reflects what is happening in the town: a divorce from reality. Strongly recommended. (T. Keogh)