BEHIND THE SUN
directed by Walter Salles with Rodrigo Santoro, Ravi Ramos Lacerda, and Flavia Marco Antonio opens April 19 at Metro
HOLLYWOOD MAY persist in cranking out grievance-and-revenge pictures from its assembly line, but there are some parties who say no to the vengeance cycle. Naturally those voices aren't American, and Behind the Sun represents the adaptation of an Albanian novel by a Brazilian director, Walter Salles (Central Station). Its plot is as elemental as the impoverished locale of Brazil's lawless Northeast, circa 1910: A blood feud links two families—one poor, the other prosperous—battling for precious land on the closing frontier.
Sun sides with the Breves clan, which arduously extracts molasses from sugar cane using an ox-drawn millstone that goes, yes, round and round and round. (In case you miss the symbolism, Salles returns to the brutal scene several times.) The embittered, tyrannical family patriarch insists that his 20-year-old son, Tonio (Rodrigo Santoro), avenge the slaying of another son by shooting one of the murderous, land-owning Ferreiras, which gentle Tonio does with great reluctance.
Salles stages this chase-and-kill scene memorably, in a blur of brush and dust, with pursuer and quarry panting dryly until blood finally seeps into the arid earth. By code, the family must then wait until the blood on the victim's shirt dries from red to yellow before seeking vengeance—giving Tonio a month to live.
During that time, naturally, he grows to resent such morbid fatalism. His worshipful preteen brother, Pacu (Ravi Ramos Lacerda), narrates the sad tale and tries to save Tonio from seemingly inexorable retribution. (How grim is the situation? "In this house, the dead command the living," the boys' mother balefully observes.) During this same respite, naturally, Tonio also falls in love with a traveling circus performer, Clara (Flavia Marco Antonio). Enchanted, he takes a forbidden trip to town for Pacu's sake, then even follows Clara on the road—but will he return home in time to uphold the family honor by accepting his own execution?
Salles and his cinematographer, Walter Carvalho, film their simple story with a grainy yet gorgeous high-contrast look. The sun's crushing equatorial weight is palpable and violent; blue-black shadows come as a relief, briefly offering Tonio a place of refuge. Yet in such a scorched landscape, the movie's plot also seems withered and sun-dried. The outcome, though not without poetry, is finally no less predetermined than the tragic feud between the Breveses and Ferreiras.