House of Sand / Casa de Areia
(Andrucha Waddington, Brazil, 115 mins.)
Warning: This review contains mild spoilers.
The year is 1910. An elderly woman, Dona Maria (Fernanda Montenegro), and her daughter, Áurea (Fernanda Torres), have been brought by Áurea's considerably-older husband Vasco (director Ruy Guerra) to establish a new community in the midst of a giant sand dune (the Maranhão desert in Northern Brazil). From pretty much every angle, it looks like the surface of the moon. Shortly after their arrival, the rest of their party returns from whence they came. Then Vasco is plucked from the picture by an accident of fate. The women are left to eke out a living on their own.
Fortunately, a band of runaway slaves have set up camp nearby. They're at first wary of these pale-skinned interlopers, but with trust comes assistance. One particularly striking fellow, Massu (Seu Jorge, City of God's Knockout Ned), is especially attentive to their needs, but few words are exchanged. And so it goes with the rest of the film. Dialogue and music--just a smidgen of Chopin--are kept to a minimum, while the swirling wind makes up the majority of the film's sound design.
Months later, Áurea gives birth to a daughter, Maria. Nine years pass. Massu is still a friend, but would like to play more of a role in Áurea's life. Is she unaware or uninterested? This chapter ends when Maria discovers her grandmother's body. Dead from natural causes, Dona Maria never got the chance to return to civilization.
Skip ahead to 1942. Although she had a brief affair in the previous section, with a guard assigned to scientists studying the solar eclipse, Áurea (now played by Montenegro with Torres as Maria) has chosen to return Massu's affections. The middle-aged Massu is played by Luiz Melodia, a musician like Jorge (who performed Portuguese-language Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic). All the while, their house sinks deeper and deeper into the sand.
For the final section, the film moves to 1969, year of the first lunar landing. The elderly Áurea is now played by Montenegro, while middle-aged Maria is played by...Montenegro. Can you say stunt casting? Fortunately, Waddington and the two Fernandas (Montenegro received an Oscar nomination for Central Station) transcend the phrase. Despite a somewhat distracting difference in height, real-life mother and daughter share a remarkable physical resemblance that helps their multi-purpose participation seem more like a natural impulse than a gimmick.
Written by Elena Soárez and shot by Ricardo Della Rosa, Waddington's third feature falls into the dreaded "not for everyone" category, like Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura or Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout. An erratic talent, Roeg was behind some of the most evocative films from the 1960s and 1970s--it's why I love to drop his name--before things got too...weird. In any case, Lawrence of Arabia, on which he served as cinematographer, is another title that comes to mind while watching this resilient trio battle wind, sun, and sand--the film's true "fourth character."
It's too soon to say whether House of Sand will join that pantheon. Some will surely find it boring, while others may find it unintentionally humorous (Reel Film proclaimed it "overly pretentious, utterly dull"). For the most part, the film does take itself seriously, but just wait as there's a bit of unexpected, yet earned humor at the conclusion. For those willing to leave the cacophony of the modern world behind for a couple of hours, Andrucha Waddington's quasi-surrealistic epic offers a beautiful escape. Plus, it's cheaper than a trip to the moon--but just as otherworldly.
Pacific Place: 6/16 at 7pm and 6/17 at 1:15pm. One of SIFF's 2006 Emerging Masters, Waddington was originally scheduled to attend the festival, but has since cancelled. That said, singer/songwriter/guitarist Seu Jorge plays Neumo's on 6/22.