A radical departure from the somber neorealism of his widely acclaimed 1998 hit “Central Station,” director Walter Salles returns with “Behind the Sun,” a dramatically lush, lyrical Western tragedy that’s almost biblical in tone. Consummately crafted and stunningly shot in magnificent locations deep in Brazil’s remote northeastern badlands, the film unapologetically courts the commercial curve of the international arthouse arena with its rustic exotica and sensory overload of poetic imagery, giving it something of a grandiose air. But while this may occasion opposition from purist critics, even they will be forced to acknowledge the superb filmmaking skills on display in this visually sumptuous drama, which should blaze brightly in key markets worldwide.
Adapted by Salles, Sergio Machado and Karim Ainouz from “Broken April,” by Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, and transferred to Brazil’s Ceara state in 1910, the story bears some similarity to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” (lifelessly filmed by Francesco Rosi in 1987). Recalling Marquez’s work in general, Salles has heightened the magical, mythical elements in this tale of ancestral conflict, fate and destiny, and the desire to break a cycle of death and revenge.
That inescapable cycle is mirrored in the relentlessly churning wheels and giant cogs of the primitive ox-driven sugarcane mill where the Breves family toils . Like “Central Station,” Salles installs an unsullied innocent to narrate the story: youngest Breves son Pacu (Ravi Ramos Lacerda).
Having lost his eldest boy, killed by a neighboring family in an age-old land war, the father (Jose Dumont) patiently waits until the bloodstain on his dead son’s white shirt turns yellow with age as the signal to retaliate. He dispatches his next son, Tonho (Rodrigo Santoro), to avenge the death. Tonho carries out his father’s wishes in an extended, breathtakingly visceral sequence — without question the highlight of the film — in which he pursues his victim at great speed through a cane field.
Tormented by the weight of his actions, Tonho asks permission from the grieving family to attend the funeral . He then pleads with the victim’s grandfather (Othon Bastos) to accept a truce and end the violence. But the old man concedes a reprieve lasting only until the next full moon, telling Tonho his life now is divided in two, between the 20 years he’s been on earth and the short time he has left. The man’s embittered family again hangs out a bloody shirt to turn yellow.
Anxiously observed by Pacu and his mother (Rita Assemany), Tonho wrestles with the dilemma to face death or run off . The decision is shaped by the arrival in the village of traveling circus duo Salustiano (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) and his stepdaughter Clara (Flavia Marco Antonio), who inspires in Tonho the desire to know love before he dies. But his ancestral obligation proves too binding, forcing him to return home.
Far less gentle than Salles’ storytelling in “Central Station” or his haunting 1995 road movie “Foreign Land” (co-directed with Daniela Thomas), the plaintive tale unfolds with broad strokes in a solidly accessible narrative style with a Greek-tragedy vein. Much of the emotional impact and dramatic texture come from the placement of these doomed characters within the vast, sun-scorched landscapes, photographed in gorgeous widescreen and in rich, burnished earth tones and hot natural lighting by ace d.p. Walter Carvalho. But while they are undeniably beautiful, the succession of artfully composed, arresting images feels a little self-consciously seductive.
Seamlessly mixing seasoned actors with non-professionals, cast fleshes out the characters with fierce intensity. Santoro’s dark, expressive eyes make him a strong center while, as Clara, Antonio — herself a circus performer with no previous film experience — brings a real lightness, warmth and vitality to her scenes. Fact that both beautiful young actors are swoon material can’t hurt the film’s marketability.
The ultra-polished production also benefits from an elaborate, densely layered soundtrack, with Antonio Pinto’s textured score integrating trance-like sung elements, funeral chants and folkloric themes and effectively charging the atmosphere of heightened emotion.