Reuniting “Central Station's” Oscar-winning director Walter Salles, producer Arthur Cohn and cinematographer Walter Carvalho, the gorgeously lush “Behind the Sun” is based loosely on the novel “Broken April” by Ismail Kadare, but relocated from Albania to early 20th-century Brazil. There's a futile sort of Hatfield and McCoy feud focusing on land ownership that reigns between two families, one impoverished, one wealthy. Downtrodden in a small sugar cane field, the poor father (José Dumont) has lost two sons to the long-running dispute, but proudly, foolishly and unwaveringly believes maintaining the quarrel allows his family the only thing they have left--dignity.
How low the family has sunk is evidenced by the youngest son who is known only as “the Kid”--his parents too resigned to even bother naming him. Although illiterate and never having left home, the Kid (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, armed with the most stunning of smiles) understands all too well the reality of the feud, having been at the side of the brother last slain. The Kid also seems to be the only one who realizes that the illogical “eye for an eye” squabble only leads to “everyone being blind.” Indeed, the patriarch from the wealthy family is literally blind, and his heirs have a significant share of vision problems. But another kind of blindness keeps the Kid's own house so dark that his mother moans that “death rules here.”
For all the drudgery and emptiness of his life, the Kid clings to his remaining brother, Tonio (Rodrigo Santoro, painfully beautiful), and a delightfully unfettered imagination given wing by a chance meeting with traveling circus entertainers, the beautiful Clara and her buoyant stepfather Salustiano. Clara gives the Kid a book and christens him “Pacu.” Although unsure about the new name, the Kid spins a fantasy about the pictures in his book and Clara even as he remains painfully aware of Tonio being next on the retaliation list.
Although apparently headed toward an inexorable bitter end, the combination of the unhindered circus performers, the powerful bond between the two brothers and an unexpected transcendence lead to a stunning and bittersweet finish.
Far darker than “Central Station” yet similarly focusing on the world as seen by a child, “Behind the Sun's” painful clarity of the hopeless lives of the Brazilian poor is frequently overwhelming. Yet through subtle twists and surprising bursts of joy in the story, backed by Carvalho's stunning photography, Salles turns a simple tale into a provocative study of hope with oddly contemporary elements. An unsettling but eerily prescient line comes from Salustiano explaining to Clara about Tonio's inevitable doom as part of a blood feud: “They would rather kill than solve their problems; those are the real fanatics.” Although the solution to breaking the long cycle of violent madness is not simple, Salles ensures that audiences will go away optimistic--a true gift indeed. Starring José Dumont, Rodrigo Santoro and Ravi Ramos Lacerda. Directed by Walter Salles. Written by Walter Salles, Sérgio Machado and Karim Aïnouz. Produced by Arthur Cohn. A Miramax release. Drama. Portuguese-language; subtitled. Running time: 91 min