The House of Sand (Casa de Areia)
Columbia TriStar Filmes do Brasil
Directed by Andrucha Waddington
Staarring Fernanda Montenegro, Fernanda Torres, Ruy Guerra, Seu Jorge, Stênio Garcia, Luiz Melodia, and Enrique Dí­az
Rated R

Given that The House of Sand covers nearly six decades, it’s fitting that an early shot in director Andrucha Waddington’s (Me You Them) film is a long one. The film opens with roughly 13 seconds of empty dunes in Brazil’s harsh Maranhão region circa 1910, before a few small-as-ants figures enter from the left-hand side of the screen. Eventually, a train of settlers trudges through the emptiness. All told, Waddington holds the shot for more than two minutes, and if he seems to be taking his time telling the story, that’s appropriate to the plight of his characters.

That weary procession includes the pregnant Aurea (Fernanda Torres) and her mother, Dona Maria (Fernanda Montenegro), who follow Aurea’s domineering, crackpot husband Vasco (Ruy Guerra) to the remote area. Aurea immediately longs to return home, but after Vasco self-destructs, mother and daughter find themselves stranded with little hope of making it back to civilization.

“I’ve never seen anybody coming … or leaving,” explains Massu (The Life Aquatic‘s Seu Jorge), a member of a nearby community settled by fugitive slaves who helps them make do. That’s not entirely true — Aurea first pins her hopes of escape on a nomadic salt peddler named Chico (Emiliano Queiroz) and then, nine years in, to a lieutenant guiding a caravan of scientists through the desert. But Waddington, working off a screenplay Elena Soárez wrote from a story she and Waddington developed with Luiz Carlos Barreto, tells Aurea’s story as one not of escape but of eventual acceptance. As the years pass, the tensions of being stuck are reinforced by a natural casting choice — after Aurea’s mother dies and her daughter, Maria, has grown up, the two female leads simply slide down a generation, with Montenegro (Central Station) taking over the role of Aurea and Torres becoming Maria.

What may read like a gimmick works well in execution: Torres in particular adeptly brings new mannerisms to what might have become a carbon copy of her earlier character, and by the final scene, Montenegro simultaneously portrays both daughter and granddaughter of the first woman she plays. Waddington and photography director Ricardo Della Rosa’s visuals — rife with dunes and skylines — are often stunning, but that feat is pretty much low-hanging fruit for sand-bound filmmakers. When it comes to portraying the area’s isolation and seeming timelessness, the film is arguably stronger because of its virtually tuneless soundtrack. The sounds of shifting sands, wind, seagulls, and ocean filling up the emptiness are worth a thousand words themselves. It comes as little surprise that when Aurea hears music for the first time in years, her eyes tear up.

The House of Sand is a more artfully realized and thoughtful story about the heart and its wants than any Hollywood has managed in many moons, but the film is still a bit too stolid to be great, despite taking home the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize from Sundance.

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