Brazilian director Walter Salles’ Behind the Sun is a visual step up from his last (and Oscar-nominated) feature, Central Station, while again using that film’s device of sentimentalizing its story by having a young boy as a central character. But where Station’s descent from hard-edged urban drama to soggy road movie with a crusty old lady and a cute kid made for a disappointing narrative arc, Sun is more tonally level and more blatantly tragic.
It’s a fairly simple story, about a blood feud in Northern Brazil in 1910 between two families of sugar growers, the kind of situation where eventual doom is a given and which Salles presents in an opulently grim style. With the suggestive darkness of its candlelit hovels and the terrible beauty of its foreboding landscapes baking under the sun, the film is a lovely wallow in the romance of unhappy fate.
Of the two feuding families, our sympathies come to lie with the poorer one which is composed of a tyrannical father, a weary mother, a 22-year-old son named Tonio (Rodrigo Santoro) and a 12-year-old simply called “the kid” (Ravi Ramos Lacerda). The film opens with Tonio avenging the recent murder of his older brother, and then waiting for someone from the rival clan to come and murder him. (This is a feud with fairly strict rules; Tonio wears a black armband to signify that he’s the next to be killed). The question then becomes whether Tonio is going to escape his fate, and thus end the feuding cycle, and just how far into harm’s way “the kid” is going to wander.
When a traveling circus arrives in the vicinity, an element of romance is introduced into Tonio’s world and a glimpse of a wider world into the kid’s, but not enough to derail destiny, which comes with a cruel twist. It’s an entertaining little story, if you like the lavishly downbeat, but Salles has become such an exacting stylist that one hopes he soon comes across a meatier scenario, one more worthy of his visual acuity.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Birmingham 8 (Old Woodward Ave., south of Maple, Birmingham). Call 248-644-3456.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.