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Grade: C-Behind the Sun (2001)

Director: Walter Salles

Stars: Josť Dumont, Rodrigo Santoro, Ravi Ramos Lacerda

Release Company: Miramax

MPAA Rating: PG-13

 

Walter Salles: Behind the Sun

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Miramax works its magic again and gains a 2002 nomination for Best Picture from the Golden Globes with the Brazilian Behind the Sun (Abril Despedaçado). Recall the past two years when Miramax championed the cause of Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, and you have an idea of what you're in for with this Brazilian take on the Hatfields and McCoys. Add formula death scenes to the lightweight Woman on Top, and you get an instant Behind the Sun. Designed for mass consumption to pull at the heartstrings, the empty headed fable will be quickly forgotten—until Miramax's relentless Oscar campaign gains another unwarranted nomination.

Adapted from Ismail Kadare's acclaimed novel Broken April (set in Albania), the film is relocated to 1910 in the Brazilian badlands, where Tonho (Rodrigo Santoro) is sent by his father (José Dumont) to avenge the murder of his older brother. Tonho's ten-year-old brother Pacu (Ravi Ramos Lacerda) narrates in voiceover to establish the fable—the ritual of waiting on the next moon for the bloodied shirt to yellow has gone on for years after a family land dispute. The twenty-year-old Tonho realizes that following family tradition dooms him, and Pacu begs him to leave.

When Tonho gains permission to attend the enemy family's wake for the murdered son, and the patriarch asks if he's ever experienced "love" and laughingly informs him that he has only days to survive, the plotlines are set. As soon as a small circus comes to the tiny village with the beautiful Clara (Flavia Marco Antonio), the pieces are all in place.

One attempt to develop another theme involves repeated references to the lack of progress. Tonho's father resigns himself to the same path that his father took, and expects his sons to continue the tradition of maintaining the small sugar cane plantation by hand and oxen, that symbolically continue walking in circles to crush the cane. Not even a drastic downturn in the sugar cane market deters the father—he fears the modern world, and can only conceive of working harder. He also doesn't want Pacu to learn to read, and insists that Tonho face up to the coming assassins instead of fleeing. All the father knows and wants are the things that have gone on forever in the family, including the longstanding feud. As the mother says, "in this house the dead command the living."

What saves the film from complete banality is the acting of Santoro, who had done primarily television work before this film. Santoro doesn't have many lines, but his eyes and body language communicate great emotional range, and he carries the film far better than the voice-over narration. In comparison, the other characters could have been replaced with cardboard cutouts or by some new digital wizardry, as long as the sound editor can throw in occasional shouts and crying whimpers. Hopefully, some other directors will take notice of Santoro's talents and another Brazilian actor will get parts that Antonio Bandaras is always considered for.

Director Walter Salles knows how to construct winning visuals and uses Walter Carvalho's cinematography talents well. The night tracking shots, the spinning chase sequences, and the dizzying shots on the rope and swing are all memorably photographed to give the film a semblance of Life. Too bad Salles couldn't resurrect the script-by-committee to make it more lifelike, as he did in the far superior Central Station. That film was also co-written by Salles and Sergio Machado.

But Behind the Sun fits perfectly with Miramax marketing strategy, and no studio promotes the mediocre and bland more expertly. Take a film that is perfectly harmless—one that will offend no one. Be sure there is enough sweetness, and this time promote that it's the best foreign film of the year since it has subtitles. Gullible American audiences and award voters will be sucked into the simple tale and think they are seeing another "profound" arthouse film. Don't be fooled by the hype, or by the director's previous track record. Behind the Sun isn't the worst film playing theaters, but true arthouse fans hunger for a lot more than tortilla chips for an appetizer. Don't expect raw sugar cane either—this is well processed sweetener for the most part.

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