by Roderick Conway Morris

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Blood Feuds in the Badlands of Brazil


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 12 September 2001

 

The Brazilian director Walter Salles's latest film, "Abril Despedacado" (literally "Broken April," but which has been give the English title "Behind the Sun"), was premiered in competition for the Golden Lion on the eve of the close of the Venice Film Festival.

It received no awards from the jury of industry pros, but did secure the Leoncino d'Oro (Young Golden Lion) awarded by a panel of senior high school students from all over Italy. Their spokesman said they were on

the verge of handing their prize to the Italian director Giuseppe Piccioni's "Luce dei miei occhi" (Light of My Eyes) but at the 11th hour were won over by "Behind the Sun." It will be interesting to see in the long run whether this verdict better reflects the impact of Salles's film on audiences at large.

Having produced dozens of films annually, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for political and economic reasons, the Brazilian film industry suffered a spectacular collapse, and the stream of feature films there was reduced to a trickle. Salles, now 45, has been a major force not only in reviving Brazilian cinema, but also in putting it on the map worldwide. His 1998 "Central do Brasil" (Central Station) won the Golden Bear at Berlin, the Oscar for best foreign-language film and a host of other awards, and was seen by more than 7 million filmgoers.

For "Behind the Sun" Salles again teamed up with Arthur Cohn, the independent producer of "Central Station." Cohn produced the Italian director Vittorio de Sica's last five films, including "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," which also won the Golden Bear and an Oscar. (With six Oscars to his name, Cohn holds the record as an independent producer for Academy Awards.)

"Behind the Sun" was inspired by "Broken April," a novel by Ismail Kadare of Albania about family vendettas in his native land, and transposed by Salles to the lawless frontier region of Bahia in northeastern Brazil, where, in the absence of the authority of the state, vendettas between land-owning families continued well into the 20th century. The present story revolves around the blood feud between two neighboring families in 1910, seen through the eyes of a young child of one of the households.

Salles and his team spent weeks scouring the region for suitable locations and ended up filming 500 miles (800 kilometers) from the region's capital in temperatures that averaged well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees centigrade). The parched grandeur and utter remoteness of this godforsaken land, a protagonist itself in that the origins of the feud lie in the struggle to define once and for all the borders of its ownership, lend this tragedy a mythic, timeless quality, yet with evident parallels relating to arenas of intercommunal strife across the world of today.

As before, Salles worked with a mixed and richly talented cast of professional and nonprofessional actors, who spent an extended period learning how to cut sugar cane, drive oxen, operate an antique cane-crushing mill and make molasses over boiling cauldrons in an inferno of a crumbling farm shed.

This lends an exceptional authenticity to the work scenes, which Salles and his regular collaborators from the world of documentary filmmaking shot in natural light with tremendous skill. The austere, painterly beauty of the lamp-lit interior night shots is no less striking. The backbreaking grind of the characters' daily existence and their unyielding but ultimately self-destructive determination, is further echoed by Antonio Pinto's haunting and plangent score, which draws on traditional local songs for the dead.

There are no real villains in this story, only human beings caught in a cycle of violence from which they can see no way of escaping. But, in the end, a dramatic, cathartic denouement holds out the possibility of redemption and release through love and self-sacrifice.

The director said in an interview that what attracted him above all to this story was its universal moral implications -- which Salles has in fact managed amply to convey through a gripping story, a sure grasp of character and an unusually inventive, intelligent and tightly handled cinematic technique.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016