There is nothing more fascinating than nature's incredible beauty captured on film. Unfortunately, Judge Bill Gibron felt this South American story of women against the wilderness had very little else to offer.
All we are is dust in the wind…
Desperate to pay off her debts, Áurea marries the older, obsessed Vasco de Sa, and ends up traveling through the Brazilian desert with her elderly mother. Her husband has bought some questionable land near a lagoon, and it's there where he will start his new life. A tragedy cuts such plans short and suddenly the women find themselves at the mercy of the elements. Eventually, a tribe of locals befriends them, and soon a mysterious man named Massu is helping with food and shelter. Always looking for a way out of the wilderness, Áurea tries to bargain with a nomadic merchant, then with a group of visiting scientists. She never does make it out, and ends up giving birth to a daughter she calls Maria. Fast forward a few years, to when the females have found their way to the coast, living with Massu and his people. When passions finally flare up between the white matron and the brave black man, it is Maria who takes it the worst. She grows up to be a pariah, passed around amongst the men in the village, drunk and directionless most of the time. When the air force arrives looking for a downed airplane, Áurea and Maria are faced with a decision: go back to civilization or stay in The House of Sand. It's a difficult, demanding choice.
Like The Piano without the gratuitous Harvey Keitel nudity, this turn-of-the-century fable about ill-prepared people going "native" in desert Brazil has some wonderfully evocative moments. Providing audiences with a glimpse of a place very few will ever visit, let alone fully appreciate or understand, the vast vistas captured by director Andrucha Waddington are absolutely remarkable. Like animate art, the sand dunes that make up the backdrop to most of the action slowly shift, blown by the wind into various shapes of sculptural splendor. When he holds on these moments and magnifies their importance to the destiny of the characters involved here, The House of Sand soars. It makes all manner of metaphysical sense, exploring the enigmatic juxtaposition between civilization and the wild, human nature and animal attraction. As long as he stays within the battle between people and place, Waddington never makes a misstep. Unfortunately, there has to be a narrative buried somewhere inside the gorgeous landscapes and carefully composed shots. This story, a plain tale of two women working out their issues amongst the harsh realities of turn-of-the-century South American society, never really pulls us in. As a result, we have a visual aura that engages and attracts us, and an internal ennui that keeps us at arm's length.
Nominated for an Oscar for her 1999 turn in Central Station, the magnificent Fernanda Montenegra is reduced to playing a series of slightly less sympathetic characters. Indeed, one of The House of Sand's more troubling turns is Waddington's decision to mark the passage of time by switching the roles played by his leads. At first, Montenegra is the realistic mother to Fernanda Torres's spoiled, debt-ridden bride. Then, after 20 years, our older actress takes over the bride's part, leaving her co-star the task of playing her own daughter. It gets a little confusing, especially if you don't immediately catch on that the gimmick is actually marking the passage of time. When Montenegra finally essays both generations of women, the novelty has worn out its welcome. But it's a crucial conceit, one that can add to the already distant dynamic of the narrative. Waddington wants to get by with sketches, not statements. He doesn't explain much, letting dialogue delivered much later on in the story fill in the blanks we've stumbled over previously. There are famous filmmakers—Robert Bresson, for example—who use this approach very effectively. But one must be a very strong visual storyteller to make it all work and, sadly, Waddington is weak in this area. Ask him to turn a pale white horizon into something spectacular, and he'll deliver with master craftsmanship. But when it comes to exposition via visuals, this director fails to deliver.
The cast also complicates matters. For all her legendary status, Montenegra is an actress of suggestion. She barely raises her voice throughout the entire two-hour running time, resorting to the kind of forceful focus we expect for people in her precarious situation. Without that emotional heft, however, we tend to forget her different characters' roles in the failing family dynamic. Equally, Torres has two thespian tones—angry and slutty. As Áurea, the pregnant wife of a much older madman, she's like a shrew set on "spitfire" mode. Then, when asked to play the twentysomething Maria, Ms. Torres simply stumbles around and acts desperate. Neither turn is very appealing, keeping us from caring about her hardships and plight. About the only performer here who delivers the kind of solid, substantial work we expect from such a story is famed Brazilian musician Seu Jorge. No stranger to the silver screen (he was magnificent in City of God and The Life Aquatic), this talented man with incredibly piercing eyes gives the noble native Massu more importance than what is on the page. It's a shame then that another actor steps in later on and ruins everything Jorge has established. It's what Waddington wants, obviously.
Granted, there will be those who buy completely into what this film is fashioning, getting directly involved with the lives of these characters and rooting for them to find their way in a world quickly evolving around (and without) them. If you make that kind of connection, Waddington is waiting to walk you through his frequently melodramatic moments. But there will also be viewers who flinch at the almost outlandish demands this story puts on their sense of cinematic logic. Again, The Piano is a perfect corollary. Jane Campion's controversial classic gives us the same sort of problematic protagonist, the notion of sex as a healing home remedy, and men as miserable, untrustworthy brutes. When Maria becomes a woman and decides to diddle her way through the rest of her life, such a stance seems gratuitous, not genuine. Indeed, a great deal of The House of Sand plays like artifice for the sake of some solid artistic merits. Perhaps had the storyline not strayed so rapidly from one generation to the other or maybe if Waddington had prepared us better for his game of actress musical chairs, we might be more intrigued. It could just be that such "one against the elements" exercises no longer play in a post-millennial world. Whatever the case, The House of Sand is a good effort made faulty by issues both within and outside its control. Some will adore it. Others will feel it drift through their consciousness like grains through an hourglass.
For the DVD presentation of this film, Sony provides a stellar technical package. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is simply stunning, a museum of meaningful motion-picture portraits presented in a desperately beautiful optical transfer. There are sequences here that will literally take your breath away. On the sound side, the 5.1 Portuguese mix is masterful, delivering the kind of atmosphere and ambience we expect from such an immense natural setting. As the desert wind whips through the speakers, dialogue is always discernible and the English subtitles translate the conversations clearly and directly. As for extras, a 50-minute behind-the-scenes featurette focuses on the almost unreachable location (a good four to five hours into the nearly unexplored Brazilian outback) and the newspaper photo of a house being consumed by a dune that started the cinematic ball rolling. Waddington, his wife Torres, and her mother Montenegra (yes, they are so related in real life) all provide interview insights into their working arrangement, and we do get a sense of how hard it was to make this movie. Toss in a few intriguing trailers, and you've got a basic example of the format's ability to provide clarifying context, if not much else.
There are worse filmic faults than a failure to connect to a character on a gut level. Indeed, many auteurs work their entire careers to create such distinct disconnect. There are definitely aspects of The House of Sand that survive such cinematic separation. If we cared more, however, this would be some kind of visceral motion-picture masterwork. As it stands now, it's engaging, if also uninspired.
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• "The Making of The House of Sand" Featurette
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