The epic, romantic The House of Sand functions nicely as both a dramatic recreation of Brazil’s history, and as a picturesque travelogue in which viewers are transported to a part of the country that is often unrepresented in film: northern Maranho. It is a mysterious, deadly, and other-worldly beautiful realm made largely of sand. The area shown in the film borders on a turquoise sea and a lush, green rainforest is amongst the region’s other evocative textures. On paper, this may sound like a vacationer’s paradise, but in the film (which takes place, at first, in 1910 and spans some 60 years) soon sets the record straight: Maranho may be a vast desert filled with gorgeous imagery, but it is an environment that is inhospitable to most humans.
Aurea and Maria are in for a rude awakening when they find themselves unexpectedly stranded among the white sand dunes that recall the moon’s surface. City women abandoned by their insane patriarch to wither in the Brazilian desert, the mother and daughter (played by real-life mother and daughter Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres), are pushed to their utmost limits, trapped by the brutal elements in the unpredictable countryside for more than 59 years. Over the years they are stranded there, the strength and perseverance of the women becomes an almost inspirational tale. The three women who were cruelly left to die learn to adapt to their situation with a determination that never comes across as hokey or overly spunky.
Stark in it’s depiction of isolation, carnality, and familial bonds; and particularly adept at capturing the fire and ice intensity that seems inherently connected to the relationship between mother and daughter (without an excess of fatty dialogue), The House of Sand is equally barebones in its actual production. The film’s director, Andrucha Waddington (who appears with the principals in a nice behind the scenes documentary — something that is usually sorely lacking from small international productions like this) explains that the look of film is deliberately void of color; costumes are done in black to provide a stunning contrast to the dunes. And the trick works: the no frills, unfussy (and largely natural) settings evoke a post-apocalyptic future, a paradise on earth, and some other planet altogether.
Just as the women realize they will never be able to leave the wasteland (Maria is too old to make the arduous journey back to the city, while Aurea is about to deliver her first and only child), the women make fast friends with a local man, Massu, who shows them how to survive this land. Aurea and Massu begin a passionate affair, perhaps out of desperation, and the isolated pair forms a concrete, erotic partnership over their years of banishment. Despite being completely unprepared when left behind, and despite many chances to leave the house in the desert, Aurea is able to craft a semblance of life for her daughter, Maria, who acts out with her overt sexuality in defiance to her confined state.
The magisterial (though terribly unfriendly) landscape never seems to change, but the women of The House of Sand do: Montenegro and Torres switch roles as the women age and become changed by their circumstances. In subtle gimmick casting, Montenegro plays the elderly mother in 1910 opposite her daughter as the pregnant woman, and then plays that woman in the 1942 segment with Torres switching to play a now grown-up version of 1910’s then-unborn child. Montenegro then audaciously returns to play opposite herself as both the elderly daughter and granddaughter for a 1969 interlude. It’s a virtuoso acting turn that requires the legendary 77-year-old Brazilian actress (who was Oscar-nominated in 1998 for producer Walter Salles’ expert Central Station, and will be seen later this year in Love in the Time of Cholera) to transform from woman-to-woman with ease; while making sure each variation is a markedly, though subtly, different character.
The starring roles were written expressly for the Montenegro and Torres by Waddington, who is married to Torres, but the true star of this warm, and expressive odyssey is the countryside itself: we catch a glimpse of what seems to be another world in Maranho, a Brazilian territory so far removed from most people’s preconceptions of what Brazil actually is, that it might as well be another world. When a character in the film refers to the moon as being a lush haven that likely is filled with an array of flora and fauna, Aurea seems to lose all hope. It’s almost as though she is disappointed, like she desperately wanted to have something in common with the heavens. When we see her as an old woman in 1969, when she is told by her daughter that there isn’t anything on the moon other than dirt and hills, the look on her face is completely gratifying. It’s as if after so many years of thinking she was living an insignificant, unrecognized existence, Aurea seems to be finally validated to know that she has a connection to the heavens, after all, via all that sand.
The House of Sand is yet another filmic example of why Brazil is setting the standard when it comes to exporting interesting, superior filmmaking. Andrucha and Salles, along with Fernando Meirelles’ recent international successes (and critical darlings) City of God, and The Constant Gardener, make a convincing argument that Brazil’s film industry is in a renaissance. The men are all fully committed to raising the profile of their country for the world to see; one village at a time. No matter which region these directors decide to visit, the viewer is given a compelling, vivid slice of Brazilian life and history.