Walter Salles, the talented Brazilian director of ”Central Station” and the new, folkloric art trifle Behind the Sun, is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. The clothing is his scrupulously austere and dawdling style – a self-conscious mode of doleful neorealism, derived from Vittorio De Sica, that in Salles’ hands is like a signifier of authenticity; the sheep is his sentimental heart. Telling the story of Tonio (Rodrigo Santoro), a 20-year-old sugarcane farmer who is given just one month to live before he becomes the next victim in a ritual blood feud between his family and the landowners next door, Salles always knows exactly where to put the camera – hitched to the top of a swing; staring at a beautiful circus girl (Flavia Marco Antonio) whose fire-breathing act reflects her sensual nature.
You’re always aware, though, that you’re watching a quaintly middle-class, museum-poster notion of an ”elemental” peasant fable. (The circus girl looks like Frida Kahlo crossed with Ali MacGraw.) Salles has craft, empathy, and a ravishing eye, but as a filmmaker he needs to become a bona fide wolf – either that, or move to Hollywood and let his inner sheep roam free.