If anything, the title of House of Sand (2005) is an understatement. This lovely film, directed by Andrucha Waddington (Me You Them), takes place in a corner of northern Brazil that is a veritable universe of dry, swirling white dust. Like the main characters — three women of successive generations exiled from a softer, more accommodating life in the city — you grow accustomed to this landscape after a while, and come to appreciate its beauty. But at first it seems about as hospitable as the surface of Mars: gritty, windy, almost actively hostile to human habitation.
Mr. Waddington and his director of photography, Ricardo Della Rosa, use a wide-screen format and long, angled shots to capture the harsh sublimity of this desert, where the sand is relieved by strips of vegetation and an occasional glimpse of the nearby ocean. The land is such a presence in the film that it almost takes on the status of a character. It’s not just the setting for the struggles of the women, but an active agent in their destinies and the object of their loathing, their terror and, ultimately, their love.
Filmed near the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, House of Sand is not without its share of human grandeur, since it stars Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres, a mother and a daughter who happen to be among the national treasures of Brazilian cinema. They undertake not just two performances, but a suite, the harmonies and counterpoints of which are both subtle and breathtaking.
At the beginning Ms. Montenegro is Dona Maria, a weary matriarch accompanying her pregnant daughter, Áurea (Ms. Torres), on a trek into the middle of nowhere. The year is 1910, and Áurea is following her monomaniacal husband, who holds the deed on a few acres of howling nothingness.
Before long, Áurea’s husband’s fellow travelers have departed, and he himself has restored the phrase “bitten the dust” to its literal meaning. For help the women turn to their only neighbors, descendants of runaway slaves who populate a leafy fishing village. One of them, Massu (Seu Jorge), occupies a role in Maria and Áurea’s household somewhere between servant and husband.
As the years pass — the full span of the narrative stretches 60 years — the human relationships rise to the surface, in particular the almost wordless, emotionally complicated bond between Áurea and Massu. At different points in the story, the actresses change roles, with Ms. Montenegro settling into her daughter’s outgrown characters. She appears as Áurea in a chapter that takes place in the 1940’s, during which Ms. Torres plays a second Maria, Áurea’s daughter, who has grown up wild and angry, resentful of her mother and remote from the customs and traditions that helped Áurea and the first Maria to endure.
The story that links these moments has the clarity of a fable and the sentimental enchantment of a magic-realist novel. Mr. Waddington, who brilliantly evoked the dry, brown Brazilian backlands in Me You Them, brings out the psychological nuances of the story (the script is by Elena Soárez) even as he respects its bold, primal emotions and the almost classical dignity of the main characters. At first House of Sand may seem like a stark tale of survival, but a surprisingly lush and colorful romance blossoms in its bleak and gorgeous desert setting.
Review courtesy of The New York Times