Walter Salles’ “Behind the Sun” is strangely beautiful and poetic for a film about clan feuds, retributive violence and fraternal sacrifice. Taking us into a rural world that seems both totally foreign and peculiarly immediate, the picture has moments that recall the Fellini’s “La strada” and a South American variant of “The Grapes of Wrath,” but overall it’s distinctive–at once sharp and hallucinatory and, though deliberate and self-consciously “artistic,” quite affecting.
The story, inspired by the novel “Broken April” by Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, has been transposed to the parched, windswept Brazilian badlands at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The central conflict is one over land between two families: the Breves, a hard-scrabbling couple who can barely feed their three sons on their production of sugar cane, and the Ferreiras, a far larger and wealthier clan. As the picture opens, the oldest Breves boy has been killed by the oldest Ferreiras son, and in accordance with the “rules” of feudal warfare in the harsh locale, the next Breves boy will kill his brother’s assassin after a suitable interval (determined by when the blood on the dead man’s shirt turns yellow in the sun). Under pressure from his unyielding father (Jose Dumont) and despite the fear of his mother (Rita Assemany), Tonio Breves (Rodrigo Santoro), a dreamily handsome youth who’s clearly desirous of ending the violence, fulfills his bloody obligation, gunning down his victim after a chase through a cane field. Tonio then begs the dead boy’s grandfather (Othon Bathos) to accept a permanent peace, but the old man refuses, insisting that the feud will continue. The doomed Tonio considers fleeing, but instead seeks a brief respite from the misery of his life by attending–along with his adoring kid brother Pacu (Ravi Ramos Lacerda)–a performance by a traveling carnival couple, earthy Salustiano (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelis) and his beautiful stepdaughter Clara (Flavia Marco Antonio), in a nearby town. As Pacu watches, Tonio and Clara are drawn together, but the threat from the next Ferreiras son is already at hand.
This story could been treated forcefully, as a sort of small-scaled version of William Wyler’s “The Big Country” (1958). But though he uses the isolated Brazilian locale as evocatively as the Hollywood director did his vast western plains and mountains, and though he can create a viscerally exciting sequence (most notably in Tonio’s ambush of the Ferreiras boy), Salles is hardly trying to fashion an action film akin to Wyler’s. His aim is to create a magical fable of death and redemption, in which mood and pictorial composition dominate over plot and logic. In collaboration with cinematographer Walter Carbalho, he brings a woozy, dreamlike quality to the narrative, suffusing the widescreen images with light and shadow and carefully chosen colors. He’s obviously also chosen his cast for their iconic appearance; although Dumont and Santoro, in particular, give excellent performances, it’s their look, rather than the emotions they convey, that will lodge in the memory, and the same is true to an even greater extent with the rest of the actors. As a result “Behind the Sun” is likely to strike some viewers as entirely too artful and controlled–as a film so rigidly strait-jacketed by its director’s vision that it loses all sense of spontaneity. To a certain extent that’s true; but it’s also the case that the picture builds an almost mesmerizing level of intensity so long as it concentrates on the family conflict. (The introduction of Salustiano and Clara, on the other hand, does have a certain precious quality to it.) And it’s the rich, evocative side of the film that eventually wins out. “Behind the Sun” may be too studied in its effects to be entirely successful, but it offers so many entrancing moments along the way that it’s easy to forgive its affectations.