behind the sun (2001)

director: walter salles

rodrigo santoro, flavia marco antonio, ravi ramos lacerda

Behind the Sun is one of those movies set in a country that might well be called "Picturesque Desolation", so overwhelming is the landscape to the story for which it's a backdrop. Actually, it's rural Brazil, a hundred or so years ago, though precise details aren't relevant, since Behind the Sun is one of those films so essentially stylized that historical truth and, it's soon obvious, logical human behaviour doesn't really play a significant part.

Tonho (Rodrigo Santoro) and his little brother, just called "Kid", live with their parents on a bleak, almost lunar, sugar cane plantation. Their family, of which only the four remain, have been feuding with a neighbouring family for what's meant to seem like forever. If only because their neighbours seem better at reproducing, Tonho's family is losing the feud, despite the fact that Tonho has just managed to reduce their neighbour's numbers by one more. According to the crude and pointless rules of the feud it's now Tonho's turn, and he begins the grim wait, an obligatory period of mourning, before he becomes the feud's next victim.

Tonho wants to live, though, as would any breathtakingly attractive young man in a Miramax-produced film. One day, a travelling circus passes through town, and both Tonho and Kid fall in love with Clara (Flavia Marco Antonio), a beautiful circus performer. With his days numbered, Clara represents Tonho's last chance for love and joy in an existence that's clearly both brutish and short.

Shot in a remarkably rich range of browns and blacks, and directed by Walter Salles to maximize every cinematic opportunity, from Tonho's frantic pursuit of the feud's latest victim through lethal-looking brush, to the small but overwhelming joys of a country fair, Behind the Sun succeeds as eye candy, at the very least. As Kid, Ravi Ramos Lacerda gives a stunning performance, confident and dynamic in ways that you rarely expect from a child actor.

It's all in the service of madly-frothed poetic piffle, though, and too typical of what passes for foreign film in the age of Miramax, where the blueprint for a real audience-pleaser is gorgeous piffle like The English Patient or Amalie. A generous spirit could compare films like these to the lavish theatrical spectacles popular on stages a hundred or so years ago, productions vaguely based on myths or history, but really just an excuse for impressive stage effects and choreography designed to elicit childlike awe from all ages. There's nothing wrong with this kind of entertainment, of which other descendants are Vegas stage shows and the Cirque du Soleil, but it shouldn't be mistaken for something that says anything about real human beings.