The House Of Sand

Casa De Areia | Brazil | 2005 | Directed by Andrucha Waddington

Logline: The plight of a woman, and her feisty daughter, over the span of nearly sixty years, as she tries in vain to adapt to a life in a desolate landscape of shifting sand dunes.

This is a stunningly realised character study of mother and daughter, juxtaposed against a harsh, unforgiving, yet beautiful geography that reflects and absorbs the personalities of the lead characters; a meditative terra cosmos. It feels like it’s based on a richly-etched novel (echoes of Marquez), but is based on a story idea from director Waddington and Luiz Carlos Barreto, with the screenplay by Elena Soarez.

There’s both simplicity and complexity within the narrative and the way the director has cast that becomes apparent soon enough; his two lead actors, Fernanda Torres (also his wife) who plays Áurea, and Fernanda Montenegro (his mother-in-law), who plays Dona Maria, (daughter and mother respectively). However, Waddington then has Montenegro play Áurea when she’s middle-aged, and Torres then plays her young daughter Maria as an adult. Then Waddington has Montenegro play Áurea as an elderly woman and opposite herself as the middle-aged Maria. Confusing? Not so once you’re immersed in the movie’s hypnotic rhythms.

The story begins in 1910, and then moves to 1919, then 1942, and finally 1969. The territory is Maranhão, Brazil, a massive, sprawling ecosystem of huge sand dunes and lagoons that are constantly crawling and shifting. It’s a wilderness that overwhelms its characters, but never completely consumes all of them. Not a lot actually happens, but everything does. There is anguish, there is joy, there is frustration, there is hope.

Initially it is the madness of Vasco de Sá (Ruy Guerra) who has brought his pregnant wife Áurea and her aging mother from the city to Maranhão. He dies in an accident leaving the two women to fend for themselves. The striking son of a former slave, Massu (Seu Jorge), supports them with his goat herding skills. He and Áurea become involved, although she desires to leave the Godforsaken place and return to her urban roots. Chances come and go. She is destined to stay it seems.

The acting is first rate with real-life mother and daughter shining in their roles, but surly Seu Jorge is also excellent, even if he says very little. The cinematography is the real star, or perhaps it’s the landscape. It is a mesmerizing panaroma, captured gloriously in widescreen. The opening and closing images taken from the sky of the giant sand dunes stretching endlessly is like a magnificent surrealist painting, or even a photograph of a moon. The sound is terrifically evocative too, the wind rushing, the sand trickling, the human calls echoing across the expanse, while the extreme heat and cold of the desert makes a commanding presence.

House Of Sand is a sad tale, heartbreaking with a soft caress. Yet there is quiet happiness, scattered to the winds of time. A deep sensuality embraces the whole movie, at times it is raw and mischievous, other times it is innocent and playful. Waddington is a visionary director making a bold, evocative, but distinctly wistful statement of time and place seldom indulged in the all too cynical climate of modern cinema.