Behind the Sun (12)

New myths from the badlands
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The Independent Culture

In a forbidding rural landscape, two families are engaged in an endless feud over contested territory. Each kills a scion of the other, then a brief truce is agreed before the next revenge killing, and so the bloody circle rolls on. Now, which director could have made such a film, and where could it be set? The brothers Taviani, in Sicily or Sardinia? Carlos Saura, on some Iberian plateau? Could it be the Balkans, staged with cartoonish swagger by Emir Kusturica? Or might it be a Kurosawa saga of war between rival clans of medieval Japan? Hands up if you guessed the Balkans: Behind the Sun is based on a novel by Albanian writer Ismail Kadaré, transplanted by director Walter Salles to north-eastern Brazil. The transplantation appears effortless – this certainly looks and feels a quintessentially Brazilian film, though these days we don't have many points of reference for that assessment. Suffice to say that the visual style of Behind the Sun is remarkably close to the last Brazilian film released here, Andrucha Waddington's Me You Them, and not much at all like Salles's own last film, the road movie Central Station.

Salles has hitherto specialised in tough-spirited humanist realism, with a strong sense of redemption and a contemporary state-of-the-nation agenda. Set in 1910, Behind the Sun is a flamboyant departure, more brazenly poetic in its ambitions. Its stark, stylised imagery aspires to a mythic dimension: it's no surprise to learn that Kadaré advised Salles to immerse himself in Aeschylus before making the film.

The setting is an arid patch of land situated "somewhere on earth, behind the sun". The Breves clan make their arduous crust grinding sugar beet under a blazing sun, a monotonous routine broken only by eruptions of feuding with the wealthy Fereiras, who occupy what was once Breves land. The arrangement is this: one son from each family gets killed, then a truce is declared until the blood on the dead man's shirt turns yellow; then it all starts again. There are still a few Fereiras around to keep the cycle going, but the Breves are down to the story's narrator, a young boy simply known as Meninho ("Kid"), his older brother Tonio (Rodrigo Santoro), and their parents.

The cycle starts to break when the circus arrives in town – a plot device always to be approached with foreboding. Salles, however, handles it with elegance – for one thing, the circus economically comprises only two people: a boozy, dashing clown (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, one of the lovers in Me You Them) and his beautiful fire-eating stepdaughter, Clara (Flavia Marco Antonio). When Tonio meets her, the story really takes flight – he joins her in a show-stopping routine, spinning a rope while she whirls around in mid-air for what seems like a day and a night, a dazzling if outrageously overdetermined metaphor for erotic rapture.

You certainly can't fault Salles on the full-bloodedness of his metaphors. This film is big on circles: that spinning routine contrasts with the grimly cyclical life of the Breves family, embodied by the literal grind of their ox-powered mill. The single most powerful image is the white shirt, suspended Christ-like on a line, its stains bleaching in the sun – an icon of natural timekeeping and a brutally masculinised parody of menstrual blood. Such images, it must be said, are a little schematic, but then that fits Salles's interest in archetypes; in fact, one of the film's strengths is that it makes no lip-service to conventional character. Meninho (Ravi Ramos Lacerda, engagingly pensive, with a prematurely middle-aged look of Ben Gazzara) is a spirited lad with dreams; Tonio a dashing bold boy with a will to escape and a sense of duty that holds him back; their father grim and hardened; their mother compassionate but careworn; Clara the fire-eater simply, as the subtitles concisely put it, "hot stuff". Yet the starkly conveyed situations sometimes edge into romantic cliché: in a story about an arid world, it's too predictable that the climax should happen in a rainstorm, and that the final shot should give us a billowing ocean. The truly memorable moments are less to do with staging than with atmosphere or plain dramatic tension: notably, the Sergio Leone-like sequence where a dying man crawls like a lizard across sandy ground.

By comparison, the detailed reconstructions of the hard rural life feel rather dutiful and make the film somehow less specific – more like your generic, painstakingly researched historical epic. The recreation of the sugar mill yields its striking images – flies hovering round molten caramel, slabs of raw sugar like antiquarian books on a merchant's shelf. But somehow I kept being reminded of other films from other parts of the world that had undertaken similarly elaborate reconstructions: for example, of the dyeing plant in Zhang Yimou's Ju Dou (Walter Carvalho's photography of shafts of daylight in dark sheds also seems straight from the Chinese school).

Somehow Behind the Sun lacks absolute distinctiveness or any sense of surprise: it looks exactly as you'd imagine a story of the Brazilian badlands to look. Everything looks sun-parched and burnished, earth and bodies alike, and the film is full of the standard imagery of folk-vendetta cinema – earth-stained shirts and grizzled beards, headscarves tautly knotted over concerned brows. And it does superficially resemble Me You Them to an uncomfortable degree – similar exaggeratedly russet landscapes and intense blue skies, similar evocation of torrid weather and torrid sentiments. Though Salles's film is markedly less ingratiating.

Neither Central Station nor its predecessor Foreign Land remotely confirmed one's prejudices of what Brazilian cinema might be; Behind the Sun, however, plays too easily into marketable ideas of world cinema. This is in fact a Miramax film and perfectly fits that company's aesthetic of solid narrative, high production values, with nothing too culturally specific that might alienate an international niche audience. But given the exciting new avenues recently explored in Latin American cinema, notably in Mexico ( Amores Perros, the forthcoming Y Tu Mamé También) and Argentina (the ominous, dream-like La Cienaga), Behind the Sun looks distinctly old-school.

Salles is a virtuoso film-maker and a serious-minded one, and overall Behind the Sun's folk tragedy is engrossing and cathartic. And there's something laudable in wanting to narrate a universal myth that might convincingly stand as metaphor for just about any territorial conflict on the current world scene. But ultimately, Behind the Sun has no new vision to impart, simply that extended warfare is tragic and futile. Surely a new century calls for something more specific, more local, more incisive?