The Underrated: Behind the Sun

This film is a real surprise. It’s got stunning reviews, but still nobody has ever heard of it, let alone seen it. It should have garnered a huge amount of recognition, yet it seems to be slipping into obscurity. This strikes me as grossly unfair. Miramax clearly bought it as part of a predatory attempt to cash in on Central Station, but then inexplicably failed to market it in any meaningful way. Why do distribution companies insist on doing this?

Walter Salles is a deeply talented man. He made Central Station (which is superb) towards the end of the 90’s, and followed it in 2001 with this staggeringly good  melodrama. The film it most reminds me of is The Proposition (also excellent), in that Behind the Sun is clearly a western, despite not being about the Wild West per se. I’m not a fan of period pieces at all, and I generally detest melodramas, but this little tragedy manages to transcend a genre that I consider to frequently wallow in mawkish sentimentality and therefore bore and irritate me. This is a surprising choice for a director that normally thrives in urban misery, as the source novel (Broken April) is set in the Balkans in the 1930’s, but he worked a minor miracle in transposing it to rural Brazil and the source tragedy is strong enough to thrive in translation. I was actually surprised to discover its roots- this narrative seems to fit so naturally into a rustic third world country.

Set in 1910, Behind the Sun is the story of the impoverished Breves family and their ongoing blood feud with their nearest neighbours. Pacu, the younger of the 2 surviving sons lives a life of toil and misery, while his older brother, Tonio,  has had to protect the family honour by avenging his elder brother’s death and thus has a death sentence that will be carried out as soon as the blood on the victim’s shirt turns yellow. One day a circus comes by and upsets the miserable life the family lead, turning Tonio’s head and offering a potential alternative to the futile inter-family war that will inevitably result in mutual destruction.

The Breves family lead a rotten life. Aside from the misery of their daily life grinding sugar cane, they’re also stuck in a ridiculous vendetta. Pacu comments that the dead in the house rule the lives of the living, and he has a point. The destructive cycle that the 2 families are locked in involves the next son in line taking the blood of the other side’s son that did the last killing. The Breves are running out of sons.

This film is sumptuous. The cinematography is gorgeous- a series of panoramic shots show the bleakness of the Breves daily existence. It’s slow paced, but deliberately so, as it is purely set up to draw the contrast with the relatively vibrant life that the circus folk lead. The other purpose the shot composition serves is to set up an elaborate series of visual metaphors- the dead tree, the swing, the sea, the pointlessness of the sugar milling are all to emphasise the complete futility of the vendetta. Admittedly, the oxen walking in a circle round the mill is not a particularly subtle image, but there’s an element of the poetic to it that makes it very easy to like.

The performances in this film from an almost completely unknown cast are all top drawer, but Rodrigo Santoro as Tonio is especially good. He gives an understated performance that’s laced with pathos and the pitiful life he leads is painful to watch. The brief moment of levity the family allows themselves cuts to the core, as the laughter is so unexpected that it only underlines the misery of the perpetual cycle they are in.

Flavia Marco Antonio shines as Clara. not only is she absolutely stunning, but she has real presence, and her performance is full of vitality. Her life is as pitiful as that of the Breves, but she offers Tonio brief happiness and eventual salvation. She’s also a dab hand with fire-eating, juggling and acrobatics. Someone teach her English, stat.

The film is beautifully written. The story is underpinned by a fable that Pacu tells- that of a mermaid and her love- that is repeated several times. The tale is about the pointlessness of a mermaid’s love for a man on shore, but represents the utter senselessness of the vendetta.

At the end of the day, this film is about futility. The relentless and unending task grinding the sugar cane, the pointlessness of the mutual slaughter, and the totally unnecessary belief in honour over all else. They bang this home in a fairly unsubtle manner- Father Breves even says “Our honour is all we have left”. In my opinion, fuck honour. Tonio should run for it (or burn down the Ferreira’s homestead while they’re asleep) because this perpetual feud for a piece of arid and mostly useless farmland isn’t worth the price they pay. The film closes with Tonio staring at the sea- he’s found an escape, and the feud has ended- but not without cost.

Overall, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It’s a beautiful and poetic piece of cinema. Sure, it’s pretty depressing, but it is a couple of hours that you won’t regret spending.

Until next time,


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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

6 responses to “The Underrated: Behind the Sun”

  1. Jarv says :

    Nearly time for me to go back and update the South America and Africa list- I’m up to 9 now

  2. Tom_Bando says :

    Never have heard of it. Will seek it out if it’s available.

  3. MORBIUS says :

    Nicely written Jarv. The film sounds somewhat intriguing and dire at the same time. My ambivalence leads me to believe I probably will not be viewing it anytime soon. Though there is always the possibility…..

  4. Jarv says :

    Well, it’s more that it has been unfairly forgotten.

    It’s a good film that didn’t deserve to fade as fast as it has

  5. Deep Brazil says :

    You should check another brilliant Brazilian movie with Santoro – Bicho de Sete Cabeças – where he plays a teenager sent to a mental hospital after his father discovers he smokes pot. It is brilliant, but I am afraid it wasn’t released out of the country. It was directed by Laís Bodansky.

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