From the moment we see the white stinging sand - sand for miles, in every direction, white and white and white - we instinctively know the movie we're getting with House of Sand. We are getting a metaphor for time and isolation. We are probably getting a film that moves exceptionally slowly (indeed, at two hours, it feels close to three). And we might get lingering horizontal mirages of natural beauty (ditto). In all, a higher order of art than usual, but predictable.
House of Sand, directed by Andrucha Waddington and quite a rare find, is far more original and interesting than those opening scenes suggest. If you told me this film took place on a distant planet made of sand, where time is suspended and only a dozen people reside,
I would have gone with it, so convincing is its story of people trapped by a vast dessert in a remote outpost. But by the end, if you had told me that it takes place on Jupiter, I would have still considered that idea.
Waddington's story, however, with a script by Elena Soarez, unfolds on planet Earth, in a dry, northeastern corner of Brazil - in the very same spot it was shot. When the torrential rains come, small lagoons form. There are patches of vegetation here and there, an ocean in the distance, but primarily, yep, just a lot of sand. And like the Two Brazilian women who anchor the story, you get used to the harsh, unvarying land. (Though to be truly appreciated, House of Sand should be seen on a wide screen, wider than the one it's being showing on at the Super Cinemas Toledo - but it'll do.)
It begins in 1910. Crazy Vasco (Ruy Guerra) drags his pregnant wife (Fernanda Torres) and her mother (Fernanda Montenegro) from the urbane climes of a city to a barren patch of land he is convinced will bear fruit. Samuel Beckett would approve of what happens next. The house he builds sinks, and sinks, and eventually crushes and kills him. Aurea (Torres) and Dona Maria (Montenegro) - daughter and mother in real life, and possessing incredible faces - find themselves on a lunar landscape, alone. Their attempts to escape get ominous, and they gravitate to the only neighbors (so to speak) they can find. It's a colony of free slaves.
As the film pushes on, and as a strong but almost wordless relationship forms between the women and salt dealer Massu (Seu Jorge, the David Bowie crooner from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), the years fall away, and like the women and their surroundings, you realize that the film has enveloped you.
But nothing has occurred.
To pass the time there are torrid affairs and births. Torres and Montenegro (in a touch of magic realism) trade roles, playing their own daughters, their older selves, then swap back again. In a scene of heartbreak and awe, a team of scientists come to the desert to photograph the stars and prove the theory of relativity, Massu explains. If one twin were in space and the other twin stayed on Earth, the space twin would return younger than his sibling.
Their daughters do escape.
They come back to the desert and tell of men walking on the moon and world wars, and it is then, with this knowledge of how much has been lost, The House of Sand finds an intersection between the nature epics of Werner Herzog, the gauzy romanticism of vintage Hollywood "women's pictures," and perhaps, science fiction. This isn't profound but it is moving.
The women's decision to remain in one spot has made them aliens, and as they did with the world, the world has left them.
It's a gorgeous movie.
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