By Jeffrey M. Anderson
I never saw director Walter Salles' 1998 Brazilian hit Central Station, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. But after seeing his incredibly bland follow-up Behind the Sun, I don't think I'd want to.
Most of the Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees come sugar-coated so that they're easy for Hollywood industry-types to swallow. Tougher, more beautiful and more challenging foreign films such as Fireworks, Run Lola Run, Beau Travail, The Wind Will Carry Us, Yi Yi and In the Mood for Love are almost always ignored (last year's Amelie was one delightful exception, even though it lost).
I've come to believe that directors like Walter Salles and Régis Wargnier and Jan Sverák are cultivated to create the kind of dumbed-down, syrupy subtitled films the Academy needs to fill out its Oscar list without causing anyone to think or feel anything.
Behind the Sun already comes equipped with a Hallmark Hall-of-Fame title that makes it sound like art (don't confuse it with the recent Under the Sun or Under the Sand) but actually means nothing.
The film takes place in 1910 Brazil, in the middle of nowhere. Three sons work for their tyrannical father (Jose Dumont) -- who's never happier than when he's whipping his children -- harvesting and grinding sugar cane. They often compare themselves to the oxen that turn around and around, providing the power for the grinding mill.
As if their lives were not horrible enough, this family is locked in a feud with another family. Each full moon, one son journeys to the other family's home and kills whoever killed the previous son. They hang the bloody shirts up to dry and when the blood turns yellow, it's time to start all over again.
Salles wants us to get a sense of how meaningless this feud is and how horrible it is that these young people have to die without experiencing love. But he paints the rival family as pure evil, snarling villains who deceive their blind grandfather and lie to him that the shirt has turned yellow when it hasn't.
Typically, a traveling circus enters into this scene, and the youngest son -- simply called The Kid (Ravi Ramos Lacerda) because his parents are too heartless to give him a name -- wants to go. His older brother Tonho (Rodrigo Santoro), next in line to die, takes him and falls in love with the beautiful (blue-eyed) circus performer Clara (Flavia Marco Antonio).
Salles drags out tons of other clichés as well. When Clara performs an acrobatic twirl on a hanging rope, Salles cuts to a top view looking down at the spinning ground. During a chase through the thicket, he cuts back and forth from pursuer to pursued by using the SWISH of the bushes as his cutting point. And during the movie's highest point of anguish, he uses the old standard shaky hand-held camera to illustrate it, even though the rest of the movie has been decidedly still.
In other words, this director throws in his little tricks whenever he thinks it might be cool and not when they might make sense. It's a sign that he's probably bored to tears by this bland material and the endless, appealing shots of fields and horizons.
With all the characters clumsily laid out in black-and-white, it was not hard to figure out which character has to die at the end for the maximum "emotional" impact. And so Behind the Sun became a waiting game -- an annoying deathwatch -- for me.
Some mainstream moviegoers are afraid of seeing "art" movies and titles like Behind the Sun are the reason why. They give "art" movies a bad name.