Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Behind The Sun

Last week we screened Walter Salles's Behind The Sun. The film transposes a novel about a vendetta by the Albanian writer Ismail Kadaré to the badlands of northeast Brazil in 1910. It is a forceful and compelling film. The story examines the harsh world of family honour and retribution through a generations-old blood feud between two families. The origins of the dispute lie in very material circumstances, the struggle for land between a rich and a poor family. And the brute weight of economic compulsion in the sugar industry provides the backcloth to the struggle for survival of the poor Breves family. Their arid piece of earth is somewhere that lies "behind the sun".

The opening scenes offer a beautifully-shot tableau of the work cycles of their old sugarcane mill - work that was done by slaves only a generation before. Here the bitter effort to produce the sweet stuff is laid before us:
sweating bodies, creaking mills turned by numbed oxen, the toll of hard physical labour etched onto silent faces, the avarice of the merchant who controls the market - work driven by unremitting brutality and with little hope of breaking free. It is the embodiment of what Sidney Mintz once called the tyranny of "sweetness and power".

The origins of the feud are almost forgotten. But Salles still manages to make the connections between land and honour. For the cycles of work are mirrored in the lethal cycles of violence and vengeance that have taken on their own infernal logic. The time for killing is marked by the waxing and waning of the moon and the changing colour of blood. The nightmares of previous generations lie like a weight on the hearts of the living.

When the eldest of the Breves's sons in killed by one of the Ferreira clan, the father sends the next in line, Tonho, to avenge the death. Tonho fulfils his destiny and then tries to break it. These actions are the moral centre of the film and here Salles (and his cinematographer
Walter Carvalho) offer us two amazing cinematic sequences. The first is a brilliantly-directed chase sequence as Tonho and his prey literally run for their lives through stands of brush and cane and trees. Tonho then attends his victim's funeral and Salles gives us a second wonderful sequence. The prayers and incantations of the dead man's family - the sound of swarming insects attracted to the flickering candles - are juxtaposed to Tonho's unsuccessful plea to arrange a truce with the mourning blind patriarch, to end the ritual of murder and retribution. "An eye for an eye, until everybody ends up blind", he observes, but to no avail. It will be Tonho's turn next to face inevitable death.

Tonho's story is told through the eyes of his younger brother, Pacu. He is haunted by dreams of his brother's death but he also possesses the imagination to dream of the possibilities of freedom from the cycle of violence. It is Pacu who first encounters the two circus performers that pass through town and he watches Tonho fall for the beautiful acrobat. And it is through Pacu's redemptive death - an act of unconditional brotherly love - that Tonho finally discovers the possibility of joy and fulfilment beyond his world. This is a beautiful and sometimes harrowing film. Salles is a master storyteller and he unravels the unforgiving tension between amoral familism and personal responsibility. See the film some time.


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