REVIEW: Western Station; Salles Returns with Mythic "Sun"
by Patrick Z. McGavin
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Patrick Z. McGavin reviewed “Behind the Sun” earlier this year at its Venice premiere, it will open in Los Angeles on Friday].
As a 20th century art form, the cinema is the ideal medium for subverting or expanding the primal and mythic stories linking culture, language and social origins. The fourth feature of the exceptionally gifted Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles (“Central Station,” “Foreign Land“), “Behind the Sun” is a dark and pungent Western reconfigured as a “foundation myth,” a story about civilization and its discontents. Salles’s previous fiction films and his documentaries have all dealt with the search for origins and self-discovery, typically framed as graceful road movies. This new feature bears his distinct signature, though the personal has shifted to a far more imposing and elusive subject: the definition of the larger country and culture.
A loose adaptation of Ismail Kadare‘s novel, “Broken April,” “Behind the Sun” appears clearly indebted to the work of Australian master Fred Schepisi. His treatment of national traumas, “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” and “Barbarosa,” prefigure this movie’s treatment of landscape, power struggle, family disruption and violent backlash. The story, brilliantly related in flashback, is told through the voice of Pacu (Ravi Ramos Lacerda), the youngest of the Breves family. The narrative, set in 1910, unfolds in the terrifying desert expanse of the Brazilian badlands, a contorted, unyielding space shaped by turmoil and conflict. Conflicting ownership demands over the land have occasioned violent confrontations between the warring families.
Distinguished by soft, sensitive features, Tonho is a quiet dreamer who has been ordered by his father (Jose Dumont) to retaliate against their blood rivals for the killing of his older brother. Shot as he walked through the desert with Pacu perched atop his shoulders, his death is made palpable by a powerful visual representation: his tattered, blood stained shirt caught in the breeze. Reluctant to carry out the family’s self-destructive tradition, Tonho exhibits some trepidation, though his hesitation proves momentary. Working with the excellent cinematographer Walter Carvalho, Salles stages Tonho’s pursuit of the killer as a lyrical and frightening ballet of space, movement and cutting that concludes with a shocking act of violence. Overcome with guilt, Tonho attempts to work out a truce with the patriarch (Othon Bastos) of the rival family. The man agrees to a temporary suspension of fighting between the families, until the blood of the dead man’s shirt turns yellow. The man asks Tonho how old he is, and he tells him 20. “Your life is split in two,” he says, “between the 20 years you have lived and the short time you have left.”
With a death sentence hanging over his head, Tonho retreats even further inside his head, and the story subtly shifts to Pacu, his open, protective point of view and bouyant sense of wonder and experience now tempered by his growing sense of impending violence. In this terse, anguished space, the action is effectively suspended by the appearance of two street performers traveling through the desert. Salustiano (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) and his beautiful young stepdaughter, Clara (Flavia Marco Antonio), have an immediate hold on Pacu, providing his name (the family previously just called him Kid), and supplying him with an illustrated book that intensifies his yearning for learning and self-discovery.
“Behind the Sun” is not terribly concerned with plot or characterization, and it is bound to frustrate with its opaque meanings and inchoate symbolism. The filmmaking is often exceptional, filled with urgency and grace, power and subtlety of expression. The camera sweeps and moves with assurance, turning and crossing bodies, landscape and air, to create a portrait of innocence lost and foolish tragic waste. Both the original novel and the film are influenced by Greek tragedy, though the move is best appreciated as a Western, where the conflict is stripped to essential images of desire, heartbreak and ruin.