Directed by: Andrucha Waddington
Written by: Elena Soarez
Starring: Fernanda Montenegro, Fernanda Torres
There are not many films today, even within art cinema, where a sense of place takes precedent over the mechanics of plot. In The House of Sand, the shimmering white sands of Maranhão, along Brazil’s Northern coast, are as much of a character as the mother and daughter who reluctantly make them their home.
In 1910, pregnant Áurea, with her husband Vasco leading the way and her mother Dona Maria in toe, arrives in a makeshift town among the dunes to start a new life. Soon, Vasco is killed in a freak accident, leaving the two women to fend for their selves. Miles from civilization, the elements and Áurea’s impending birth strand the two women indefinitely. While Áurea longs to leave the wretched land, her mother is content to stay, relieved that she no longer has to take orders from a man. They befriend Massu, a native fisherman who guides them through the harsh terrain, and Áurea eventually gives birth, but the opportunities to escape grow fewer and fewer as the years go on and on.
Recalling the great film Woman in the Dunes with its unforgettable image of a house sinking in a pit of sand, The House of Sand is a film centered on images of a land as beautiful as it is forsaken. Settlers trekking over rolling sand banks, torrential rains creating lagoons out of barren valleys, white earth melting into blue sky–the cinematography is nothing less than sublime.
That is not to say that the film neglects the finer details necessary to properly form an emotional connection with its characters. With the warm presence of Fernanda Montenegro and the open sensuality of Fernanda Torres (real life mother and daughter), their intimate shorthand allows for a devastating examination of three generations of women, all of whom learn the importance of sacrifice in ways large and small. For all of Áurea’s desire to return to civilization, by leaving all trespasses and returning to nature, she is awakened sexually and maternally, at once shielded from her obligations under a patriarchal society and liberated by her newfound instincts as a mother.
Time passes and the film pushes on for years and years with nary a title card or an editorial signal, forcing the viewer to reorient their understanding of the characters once a major casting shift occurs. In lesser hands, the late transition would seem gimmicky, but under director Andrucha Waddington’s delicate eye, it becomes like a time travel picture, a variation on some old themes. Time does heal and family can lessen the fear of age, death, and regret. No matter how vast the nothingness that surrounds us on all sides, life is not lived alone.
– Shane Ramirez