Behind the Sun (12) <br></br>Comedie de L'Innocence (PG) <br></br>Hearts in Atlantis (12)

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The Independent Culture

Walter Salles, who made Foreign Land and the Oscar-nominated Central Station, achieves an almost mythic grandeur in his latest film, Behind the Sun. Based on the novel by Ismail Kadaré, it examines a blood feud that has raged for years between two peasant families, shifting the setting from Albania to rural Brazil. The year is 1910, and the feud, which began over a land dispute, has just claimed the life of the oldest Breves son; his father (José Dumont), poisoned with hatred, now orders the next in line, Tonho (Rodrigo Santoro) to avenge the family honour with a killing.

Salles deftly adumbrates the bizarre, near-cabbalistic rituals that underlie the blood feud. Once Tonho has claimed his family's revenge, he is granted admittance to his victim's funeral and told by the ancient paterfamilias that his life is safe until the next full moon – and a black band is strapped to his arm as a reminder of his fate. But things change when Tonho's devoted younger brother Pacu (Ravi Ramos Lacerda) introduces him to a circus performer (Flavia Marco Antonio), and thus to the possibility of escape from the cycle of doom, symbolised in the wheel of the sugar-cane crusher around which the impoverished family labours each day.

The film might be the most beautiful-looking of the year. Salles's cinematographer, Walter Carvalho catches an extraordinary quality of light (see picture, right), contrasting the roasted desert stretches of the Brazilian badlands by day and the velvety shadow-play of faces by night – a Caravaggio come to life (the dark-eyed, tousle-haired brothers both look like an artist's model). The everyday hardship and exhaustion of peasant life are set against magical images of transcendence, like that of a woman spinning atop a rope against a dramatic azure sky, and the tree-seat on which Pacu swings delightedly to and fro. Even if one can see the denouement coming, Behind the Sun maintains an irresistible dramatic tension, and in its portrayal of a profound brotherly love, it delivers a strong emotional kickback.

After the sinuous fluency of his Proust adaptation, Time Regained, Raoul Ruiz's Comédie de l'Innocence comes as a real disappointment. The director calls it "a fantasy film without ghosts; the fantasy itself is the ghost", a definition almost designed to lower the spirits, even if the names above the film's title might raise them. Isabelle Huppert plays Ariane, mother to nine-year-old Camille (Nils Hugon), a restless, odd little boy who announces one day that Ariane isn't his mother at all. So who is? Camille takes his bemused parent to visit Isabella (Jeanne Balibar), a young woman who lost her son some years ago – here, he says, is his mother. At this point the plot goes off the deep end as a fretful Ariane invites her usurper Isabella to move in, while the kid's uncle Serge (Charles Berling) decides that abducting the newcomer and placing her in an asylum is a safer option. Ruiz, adapting from a novel by Massimo Bontempelli, appears to be playing enigmatic games with dream and reality, though not in a very seductive fashion – this isn't Hitchcock, or even David Lynch. It isn't a comédie, either, despite what it says on the tin. I suppose if you had to defend it, you'd say it was an essay on identity and myth-making, but this would in no way convey its failure to generate intellectual or moral suspense.

It's not the worst of the week, regrettably. That honour goes to Hearts in Atlantis, an unbelievably sappy and tiresome exercise in sun-dappled nostalgia. Based on a book by Stephen King, it tries to recreate the mood and structure of Rob Reiner's earlier King adaptation, Stand By Me. A middle-aged man (David Morse) returns home to small-town Connecticut for a friend's funeral and remembers The Summer That Changed Him as an 11-year-old. Thus unrolls a tale of innocence and experience as young Bobby (Anton Yelchin), coping with a self-absorbed mother (Hope Davis) who is resentful of her long-gone husband, finds friendship when a strange old guy, Ted (Anthony Hopkins), moves in upstairs.

So, do you want to hear why Ted is dodging men in dark suits, or how Bobby is suddenly endowed with extrasensory powers, or what happens to Mom when she goes on a "business trip" with her lecherous boss? Well, be my guest, but don't say I didn't warn you about Scott (Shine) Hicks's somnolent direction or William Goldman's script, the feeblest I've ever encountered from his pen, or the rape scene that suddenly bursts through the gauze of schmaltz – a horrible misjudgement of tone. The acting is better than the film deserves: newcomer Yelchin doesn't overdo the cuteness, and Morse invests his older self with an affecting strain of yearning and regret. Hopkins, whose gnomic utterances sound so much wiser in his light, musical voice, is coasting here, and with nobody apparently to mind the shop, who can blame him?