Andrucha Waddington is among some exciting young directors working in Brazil today, and his 2005 drama “Casa de Areia” [Eng. Title: The House of Sand], one of the most memorable Brazilian films I’ve seen to date. I was mesmerised yet again watching the epic saga that spans sixty years across three generations, while important events of the twentieth century pass by almost unnoticed.
The film starts in 1910, when an elderly and delusional Vasco (Ruy Guerra) arrives with young wife Áurea (Fernanda Torres), and mother-in-law Dona Maria (Fernanda Montenegro) at his newly acquired stretch of land in a remote northern corner of Brazil. Áurea, pregnant, is reluctant to live in what essentially is a sprawling desert with nothing but shifting sand dunes and distant sea in sight, and a colony of former runaway slaves as their only neighbours. Vasco’s workers flee with his livestock and supplies one night, and Vasco himself dies in an accident, leaving the two women to fend for themselves in what is an unfinished hut, gradually being swallowed by encroaching sand dunes. They decide to stay put until the child is born, before taking chances in finding their way to a city.
Nine years pass, and they, and the house are still there, with an added household member in the form of young Maria – Áurea’s daughter. They befriend Massu (Seu Jorge) from the slave village, and with his help try to leave the dunes through a travelling salt merchant, without much success. Áurea also befriends Luiz, a young captain escorting a scientific expedition, but that escape attempt also comes to pass. Her mother dies too, and Áurea will reluctantly accept life in the dunes to be her destiny. She will learn to love and live with Massu henceforth.
It’s not until 1942 that Luiz (the captain) passes through the dunes once again, and reconnects with Áurea (now played by Fernanda Montenegro) and her all-grown-up and promiscuous Maria (played by Fernanda Torres). He agrees to take Maria along with him, while Áurea stays behind with Massu (played by Luiz Melodia).
The final timeline, and in some ways the weakest of the four in terms of credibility, happens in 1969, when Maria, now in her fifties, pays a visit to an elderly Áurea. But it also contains the most intensely philosophical interaction between mother and daughter – one that encapsulates Áurea’s saga, and the meaning of life itself.
Aside from the mother-daughter actress duo – the renowned actresses Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres are mother and daughter in real life too (and also director Waddington’s wife and mother-in-law respectively), the star of the film is the sand itself (set in the spectacular Lençóis Maranhenses near the equator – now a national park). Normally a cinematographer’s dream location, it posed a particular challenge for Waddington from a storyline point-of-view – it cannot be made to look too touristy. The landscape has to be presented as something oppressive and monotonous, and it was achieved by bleaching the blue skies and golden sands. But there is no taking away the majesty of the scenery, captured beautifully in the cinematography despite the logistical nightmare of the film shoot itself.
There is however one other star in this film – the well crafted screenplay by Elena Soarez – it allows the film’s characters to evolve – they’re like the sand dunes themselves, and will reach a harmony with it as the film progresses. It is a heart-rending story that touches on love, humanity, and civilisation itself. A characteristic of epic films is latching to a cyclical theme – the characters of Dona Maria and Áurea are supplanted by Áurea and daughter Maria – in a sense one evolving into the other, and it is also physically played out, when Ms. Montenegro reappears to take on the role of a middle aged Áurea, and Ms. Torres becomes Áurea’s daughter Maria – rich layers to an otherwise simple film. It is nevertheless an unforgettable gem. and Highly Recommended Viewing..!
Amazon.com DVD Link [NTSC]
(Beware though, that this DVD has a region-1 lock on it)
The Nudity: Fernanda Torres and Seu Jorge
In a scene, Áurea, resigned to her fate, makes a pass at Massu for the very first time. It is not only passionately played out by Fernanda Torres and Seu Jorge, but well executed by the director, who also happens to be Ms. Torres’ husband.