Movie Review
The House of Sand
Director: Andrucha Waddington
Cast: Fernanda Torres, Fernanda Montenegro, Seu Jorge

usually, there’s just a handful of us: the ones who sit there all the way through a film’s closing credits. But at this screening–an almost full weekday matinee—I’d say three— quarters of the audience sat right there with me. Some movies you don’t want to end. The House of Sand comes to rest with the grace of a last breath, drenched in the same piano strains that its central character Áurea, the concert pianist marooned sixty years in the pond-dotted Maranhão sand dunes on Brazil’s northeastern coast, has wept to finally hear again.

This is director Andrucha Waddington’s third feature fiction film, interspersed with documentaries that often focus on Brazil’s composers and musicians. One such subject, Gilberto Gil, has composed this film’s classically-based soundtrack, making extensive use of such pieces as Beethoven’s Appassionata piano sonata and, fittingly, Chopin’s Preludes Opus 28, #15–The Raindrop. The House of Sand opened in 2005 in its native Brazil, screened at last year’s Toronto’s international film festival, has now just run a quite respectable six weeks in Manhattan at Lincoln Plaza, and embarked on a limited release in.the art-house circuit. Nevertheless, the film has not been as successful, either at home or in the U.S., as Conspiração Filmes, the cooperative Waddington founded with other directors and producers ten years ago, had hoped for—or as audiences like the one in that matinee might predict.

The House of Sand presents three generations of women, played at different ages in a sort of round-robin style by Fernanda Torres (she and Waddington are married) and Fernanda Montenegro (Torres’ mother and probably most widely known in the U.S. as Dora in Walter Salles’ Central Station). Film critic A.O. Scott rightly calls the women’s work in this film “not just two performances, but a suite, with harmonies and counterpoints,” referencing the obvious musical parallels. Waddington and his long-time screenwriter Elena Soárez have structured the film chronologically as four movements, each tied to a historic celestial event that pierces the endless haze of days with inspiration.

The film opens in 1910, as Halley’s Comet passes near Earth on its 75-year orbit. A minute line of figures straggles across the horizon in a wide, self-consciously photographic shot. This is the pregnant Áurea (Torres) and her mother Dona Maria (Montenegro), brought here by Áurea’s deluded husband Vasco. The first night in this spot, after the drunken Vasco reaches oafishly for her, Áurea watches the comet. Vasco’s house will collapse, killing him and stranding the women. Their only neighbors are the sea-side quilombo. One of this community of fugitive slaves, Massu (Seu Jorge, City of God), grudgingly befriends them.

1919: Áurea’s daughter, also Maria, is nine. Their lives are organized around escaping back to Rio. Áurea’s long-planned deal with an itinerant peddler to transport them is disrupted by news of a scientific expedition visiting the vicinity to photograph the May 19th solar eclipse. Áurea travels to see this, has a passionate encounter with a soldier, Luiz, and weeps when she hears music again in the festive camp. While she’s away, her mother dies; both Luiz and the peddler leave without her. Bereft, Áurea connects explosively with Massu.

1942: An older Áurea (now played by Montenegro) is content with Massu, but her daughter Maria (now Torres) is desperate, dissolute, often drunk and promiscuous. This occurs during World War II’s daily fly-overs by US fighter planes avoiding the German U-boats patrolling coastal waters. An older, courtlier officer now, Luiz returns (Stênio Garcia in a role charmingly similar to his Zezinho in Waddington’s last feature, Me You Them). Finding Áurea occupied, he takes Maria with him to Rio in his jeep.

1969: Maria’s return to the coast coincides with the Apollo II moonwalk, deepening the sense that this place has the remoteness of space. No longer angry and desperate, she brings a record player to her mother and they reconcile.

Certainly, The House of Sand is a meditation on entrapment in its many guises—the ever-shifting, undistinguished chaos of the wilderness that might engulf these refined women, their own psychic isolation, and the rigid social blinders within which Áurea must first follow Vasco and then deny Massu for years. Waddington has been clear about the film’s cinematic forbears. Given an old photo of a shack from this region and challenged to generate a film project, he had recently seen two other films: Teshigahara’s film version of Kobo Abe’s Woman in the Dunes (1964)—seacoast villagers trap an outsider in a sand pit—and Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), about Mexican aristocrats unable to leave a dinner party.

Using Torres and Montenegro as he does, Waddington also evokes similar efforts like István Szabó’s Sunshine (1999), in which Ralph Fiennes played successive generations of a Hungarian Jewish family’s sons. Waddington has been preoccupied by notions of permutation, thematic variation, and the sometimes “spitting images” of family resemblance—nature’s version of photography—since his earlier feature films. One actor played twin sisters in Gêmeas (1999); Me You Them (2000) relates the story of a woman with four sons by four men, three living with her under one roof.

The House of Sand is one of those films in which it’s hard to distinguish the fruits of acting from what’s provided by other aspects of the production. Especially with Torres, Montenegro, and Jorge, that acting proceeds with undeniable magnetism and command, and not much dialogue. Clearly the film owes much of its emotional power, for one thing, to layers of musical reference—aside from the sheer sound of performance. In both story and soundtrack, this is pointedly European classical music, carrying all the attendant tension of great outpourings channeled through formal structure and beginning at great odds with this wild land. Brazilian audiences would not miss the added associations of two nationally popular musicians, Seu Jorge and Luiz Melodia, portraying Massu the younger and elder.

Above, I called the wide opening shot of the homesteading caravan on the horizon self-consciously photographic. Me You Them, filmed in the cane-fields of nearby Bahia, is saturated with high contrast, almost neon-rich hues, but The House of Sand, white not a black and white film, often looks visually abstracted, almost bleached. What we see onscreen here is not what the naked eye haphazardly sees but instead what appears through a lens that frames, captures, and fixes images of the world, however chaotic the subject may have been in the raw. There are many shots in the dunes—groupings of figures angled against blank expanses, bodies composed against the shadow-heightened, ramshackle shelters—that call to mind the photos of another Brazilian, Sebastião Salgado. Particularly in his African famine photos, Salgado also addresses the wild, the momentary, the shifting. And whatever narrative exists in this movie regarding Áurea’s past life occurs solely through the flimsy snapshots she’s brought with her, what she props out of the wind against a rough upright pole. The House of Sand is a strenuous movie, requiring some patience, some attention, some settling in to savor those last minutes as the credits roll and the piano notes cascade over you.

The House of Sand is playing in limited release.

By: Nancy Keefe Rhodes
Published on: 2006-10-06
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