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.