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Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2004

Documenting a blistering environment

Behind the Sun

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Walter Salles
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: Spanish
Opens Nov. 6
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Amid vast, barren vistas of scattered rocks and brush, between the rich, pure blues of an unpolluted sky and the burnt-ocher dust of an unforgiving earth, a shirt hangs on a clothesline, flapping in the wind. Its front is stained a deep red, the remains of freshly spilled blood.

News photo
Rodrigo Santoro in "Behind the Sun"

After drying in the sun for long enough -- two moons, perhaps a bit more -- the blood will fade and change color. When this happens, a father tells his son, the boy must go forth and avenge the death of his older brother, whose blood it was that stained the shirt.

With minimal exposition, Brazilian director Walter Salles -- working from a novel by Albanian author Ismail Kadare -- drops us in the middle of a long-running blood feud.

The time is 1910, the place, one of Brazil's remotest corners, 800 km from the city of Salvador in the north, where daytime temperatures hit 110 in the shade. Salles doesn't need to tell us much -- it's clear this is a merciless existence the way the sun beats down on the family as they toil on a back-breaking machine to crush their harvest of sugar cane, their faces covered in sweat and grime. It's also clear that a few extra fields would be something to kill over.

Who started the feud, who's right or wrong -- Salles doesn't waste time on these questions. What he's getting at is the cycle of violence, how these acts of revenge can feed on themselves for so long that no one even remembers why they're fighting -- just that this is how it has always been.

Revenge is an oft-covered theme, but Salles approaches it from a fundamental, almost mythic level. "Mythic" is a word we hear tossed around a lot these days, usually as an excuse for shallow, preposterous acting in smash-head films like "Troy" or "King Arthur." But Salles gives us the real thing, with a tale as lean and psychologically charged as an Ancient Greek tragedy, driven by powerful yet simple images.

Rodrigo Santoro, who's sure to be the next Latin superstar, plays Tonio, the oldest surviving son of the sugar-cane farming family. He's torn between his father (Jose Dumont), a dour, domineering tyrant, and his younger brother Pacu (Ravi Ramos Lacerda), a flighty innocent. It's the classic confrontation between realism-bordering-on-fatalism as represented by the father, and idealism-bordering-on-naivete as embodied by Pacu. You could also throw in old-age vs. youth, hate vs. forgiveness, and stasis vs. change; the film is supple enough to take on all these riffs.

The father, with the complicit silence of the mother (Rita Assemany), orders Tonio to hunt down the man who murdered his brother -- the oldest son of a nearby, better-off family. Pacu sees all too clearly that even if Tonio succeeds in the murder, it will only mark him as the feud's next victim. He tells his brother not to do it, but his father slaps him into submission.

Taking his gun, Tonio tracks his victim one quiet dawn, which culminates in a breathless chase through a cane field. Tonio succeeds. But now, at age 20, he is set to become the hunted himself soon after two moons have passed.

When some gypsy-like circus performers pass by, Paku makes friends with them, imagining one girl, Clara (Flavia Marco Antonio, a circus acrobat in real-life), to be a mermaid.

Later, the boys meet them again in town, where they've gone to sell their cane sugar. Tonio instantly falls for Clara, but is torn between obeying his father and running off with the girl.

With its combination of laconic and beautiful landscapes, sudden eruptions of violence, and the perspective of a childlike innocent, "Behind the Sun" bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of Terence Malick ("Badlands," "Days Of Heaven"). But that's not a bad thing: like Malick, Salles understands that people can't be separated from their environment, the landscape they're placed in. A director who started his career as a documentarian, Salles has never lost his eye for observing and incorporating the world around him, as it really exists, not as some L.A.-cocooned screenwriter imagines it.

Thus we see Tonio and his family shot from ground level, the screen split between the black shadows of the sugar-cane mill and arid yellows of sand and sunlight, bound to this earth that has swallowed so much of their family's blood. Clara, whether she's twirling on ropes or walking on stilts, seems to exist on an ethereal level, framed against the soft clouds of a limitless sky.

It's an elemental form of cinema, also encompassing fire and water motifs, but one that feels natural and integral to the story, never precious-poetic or strained. Salles, now 48, may have scored bigger hits with "Central Station" and "The Motorcycle Diaries," but this overlooked middle film (from 2002) may be his best yet. Certainly, it's the most striking.

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