Walter Salles: Everything under the sun?

Walter Salles' follow up to Central Station will almost certainly be nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. But is that because it's a great film about blood-feuds or because Salles is so popular with Miramax's Harvey Weinstein? Matthew Sweet meets a man caught between two worlds
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The Independent Culture

There's a downside to being Harvey Weinstein's favourite South American. After a preview screening at Bafta of Walter Salles' new film, Behind the Sun, I earwigged on the post-credits conversations. "He's such a sentimentalist!" whooped a voice behind me. "He's so bloody Miramax!" The insult probably needs glossing: Weinstein, the head of Miramax – purveyor of emotive, Oscar-magnetic movies to the civilised world – so admired Central Station, Salles' 1998 worldwide hit, that he has involved himself in most of the director's professional activities since. For some, that's a sign that the two men are united in their love of the kind of middlebrow lachrymosity that serious cinephiles ought to abhor. "At what point," asked a friend of mine this week, "did you give in to Central Station?"

The day after the screening, Walter Salles and I are lounging on a chintzy sofa in his suite at the Dorchester Hotel, the usual venue for the film journalist's punt with visiting directorial talent. He is a youthful 45, with a firm jawline, absurdly twinkly eyes, and an air of easygoing intellectualism. He's like a freshly Botoxed Brazilian Michael Ignatieff. And he's also an inveterate knee-toucher.

So, let's jump in at the deep end. The subject on the card is: blood feuds, with special reference to the Kanun of Lek and the Oresteia of Aeschylus. Behind the Sun is extrapolated from Broken April, a novel by the Nobel-prize nominee Ismail Kadare. Set in the northern highlands of Kadare's native Albania, the book describes a family's struggles with the bloody dictums of the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini. The Kanun is the etiquette book of familial extermination, the first stop for anyone unsure about how to retaliate if the nephew of the village headman has gunned down his or her mother's second cousin. Enver Hoxha's regime outlawed the Kanun and its murderous complexities, but after the Communists lost control of Tirana, the book was propelled back into print, and is now available at most indifferent Albanian bookshops. "Kadare told me that people talk about the Kanun," says Salles, "but do not respect its laws. They just go after each other with AK47s."

Behind the Sun transposes the action of Kadare's novel to the Brazilian region of Sertao – a 250,000-square-mile area of semi-desert and thorny scrubland that still enjoys a reputation for lawlessness. Salles has performed this operation for a very sound reason: he discovered that similar blood feuds were being conducted in Brazil as late as the 1950s. "Several frontiers in the north-eastern part of Brazil had been defined by the clash between different families," he explains. "They mirrored exactly what happened in the plays of Aeschylus and in Broken April. If I hadn't found in my own country the reflection of what Kadare described in the Balkans, I wouldn't have pursued the project."

He's interested in the big anthropological issues. Is there something deep in the human character that has produced blood-feuding cultures all over the globe, or is it because all of these groups – Scots clansmen, Chechen warlords, Sicilian mobsters – are indebted, in some distant and subtle way, to ancient Athens? To an Aeschylan model of retributive justice? "When you compare this Brazilian story with ancient Greece," muses Salles, "you can see very complex similarities between cultures that are not obviously linked. Of course, Greece is at the origin of western civilisation, so it may be that through Portugal and Spain, some of these traditions have reached northern Brazil. But it may also be that, in a situation of chaos, different groups create laws for survival that would impeach complete annihilation, to protect one group from total extinction." In Sertao, it didn't quite work: over 100 years after the first killing, and long after anybody could remember what had sparked off the disagreement in the first place, several of the families researched by Salles eventually wiped each other out.

Salles has some personal experience of clan warfare. "I was in a crossfire once," he recalls, "between the police and a group of young drug-dealers, while shooting a documentary. What I remember from it is that there is no sense of fear or despair in the immediate moment. There's almost a de-dramatisation, when you compare it to what you're used to seeing in the movies. Even the sound of the bullets that were travelling above our heads was very peculiar. Just fwip! Fwip! A tiny sound, without the strength or impact you'd normally associate with that kind of experience."

As his father was in the diplomatic service, Salles spent his childhood much as he is spending his adult life, migrating between latitudes and time zones. He first became acquainted with the country of his birth through its films, consumed eagerly in Paris when the family occupied a flat over a movie theatre. It was within this auditorium that he experienced his cinematic awakening, during a screening of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975). The film stars Jack Nicholson as a war reporter who swaps identities with a dead man whose body he discovers in a North African hotel.

"I was 16 or 17. I couldn't leave the cinema, and I was left sitting alone there at the end of the credits. It was the last session, and the usher had to ask me to leave. I was completely in tears, overwhelmed. I was fascinated by the sense of angst that attends the modern experience: that incapacity to be comfortable in your own skin."

He might just be about to undergo an identity crisis of his own. After spending two decades living and working in Brazil, he has bought a house in Los Angeles. But he insists that this doesn't mean he'll soon be indentured to a Hollywood studio. The reason for the relocation is, Salles says, artistic: he wants to be closer to the American film-makers with whom he wants to collaborate, "and learn something by osmosis". He's planning – with Martin Scorsese's backing – a remake of Kurosawa's kidnap movie High and Low (1963) – "It's an ethical thriller, you might say". Elsewhere on his to-do list is a film adaptation of Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries, made in alliance with Robert Redford: "It'll be shot throughout Latin America, on the road, in Spanish, so it's hardly a Hollywood picture. The pitch is Easy Rider meets Das Kapital."

And what about his work with Harvey Weinstein? Well, Miramax is picking up the tab for Behind the Sun, and has also commissioned Salles to produce a screenplay for an imminent biopic of Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek. Then there's Assumption of the Virgin, a $30m Miramax production on which work was delayed when one of its putative stars, Benicio del Toro, broke his wrist on the set of William Friedkin's The Hunted. Now, movie-industry augurs suggest that Assumption is beyond salvation, and with the dates for the start of pre-production on The Motorcycle Diaries looming closer, Salles has officially extricated himself from the project.One of its co-producers, Sydney Pollack, has inherited the job.

The split, though, seems amicable enough. Anthony Minghella, the film's other co-producer and screenwriter, introduced the Bafta screening of Behind the Sun, and afterwards conducted an onstage interview with Salles that was almost ludicrous in its sentimental ardour. Extravagant compliments were exchanged. Knees were touched.

Behind the Sun will probably gain a nomination for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and some may roll their eyes at that. But is it the director's fault that his movies, with their stories of moral recuperation, their romantic liberalism, their poetic, picturesque, foreign-but-not-too-foreign qualities, should be just the kind of thing Academy members coo and weep over? If those who hand out Oscars adore Salles, and avert their eyes when they view the work of South America's bloodier operators – Arturo Ripstein, say, or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – it doesn't mean that Salles has sold out. It doesn't mean he's obediently producing movies that secure nominations, the better to swell Weinstein's sense of his mastery of the world.

At which point did I give in to Central Station? Well, probably during the scene in which Fernanda Montenegro settles down to watch her new TV set. She has bought it with the cash given to her by a couple who run a racket gutting homeless children for spare-part surgery. Suffering pangs of remorse for the orphan she has sold, she hurtles back to the couple's flat and scoops the boy from his bunk. Watch that, and a little sentimental liberalism seems both welcome and practical.

As the philosopher Richard Rorty has suggested, "Sentimentality may be the best weapon we have". That Salles doesn't mind using his movies to wield this weapon is no bad thing. If Behind the Sun ever gets screened in Albania, it might stop a few people from killing each other.

'Behind the Sun' is released 8 March 2002