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House of Sand

Don't confuse House of Sand (opening September 1 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters) with House of Sand and Fog, the film of Andre Dubus III's bestseller. Although both films do deal with people desperately dealing with issues of home and a place in the world, House of Sand is a stunning new Brazilian film.

House of Sand opens with spectacular shots of the white sands of Maranhao in northern Brazil. It looks like a lunar landscape until we see a caravan of donkeys and people slowly making their way across the dunes. It's 1910, and Vasco (Ruy Guerra) has just dragged his pregnant wife Aurea (Fernanda Torres) and her mother Dona Maria (played by Torres' real life mother Fernanda Montenegro) out to a desolate place where he believes he will find prosperity. He builds an improbable house on top of the dunes where he forces his wife to live. Vasco soon dies amidst his unfulfilled dreams and now Aurea and Dona Maria are left on their own. Aurea immediately plans to flee but that's not an easy task when you're in the middle of nowhere and burdened with a young daughter.

Dona Maria sets off in search of a small settlement founded by runaway slaves. Here she meets Massu (Seu Jorge), a young black man who slowly befriends and aids the women. Aurea, however, continues to plot her escape. Surprisingly, Dona Maria has come to accept this strange place as home and appreciates the fact that there are no men to tell her what to do. Aurea is less willing to accept her situation. She waits for her daughter to grow older so that they can travel across the desert and hopefully find a means of transport to a city. But fate and Massu intervene with unexpected results.

The story for House of Sand was inspired by a photograph of an abandoned house buried in the dunes of northeastern Brazil. Luiz Carlos Barreto, one of the film's co-producers, pondered who might have lived in such a house and encouraged Andrucha Waddington, one of Brazil's new generation of filmmakers, to consider the possibilities as well.

"The truth is, I never saw the photo," says Waddington in the press materials, "Luiz Carlos Barreto, upon his return from Cear, told me the story behind the photograph and invited me to make a fictional film about a woman who lived in this house and had to fight against the sand her whole life." And after seeing the land, you can understand how powerful that photograph must have been in stirring the imagination of the filmmaker.

House of Sand is an absolutely mesmerizing film. The land is as much a character here as the people, and the two are always shown in relationship to each other. In terms of the land, the film recalls both Japan's Woman of the Dunes and Australia's The Proposition. The Japanese film makes the sand itself a character and the Australian western shows how dazzlingly beautiful the land can be, and how unearthly it can seem. Yet all three also show how harsh and unyielding the terrain can be. But in the case of House of Sand, the land eventually works a spell on the characters, who come to embrace both its beauty and austerity.

Director Waddington and writer Elena Sorez let most of the film play out without dialogue. This is a story where the land dominates, and where seeing a person against that landscape says more than dialogue can. Aurea treks across the desert for two days in search of someone to help her escape. She continues even though she doesn't know if there's an end point to her travels. The shots of her walking through the vast dunes convey not only the futility of her efforts but her determination to pursue escape. In this vast landscape, even when characters do come together there is still a sense of isolation that permeates the story. The lack of dialogue also allows the visuals to dominate and for the film to become more an abstract exploration of three generations of women than a conventional narrative.

One interesting device that Waddington employs is to use the same two actresses to play the three generations of women at various times in their lives. So Montenegro plays Dona Maria and then Aurea as an older woman and finally granddaughter Maria as an older adult. Torres plays Aurea as well as Aurea's daughter Maria when Maria is a young woman. Initially this is a bit distracting but ultimately it proves effective. It creates a small universe in which we feel these characters are all tightly connected and living out some abstract single destiny. Plus we see the anger and stubbornness of Torres' younger face, soften into the warmth and compassion of Montenegro's older, more worn features. These are actresses who don't need words to convey what their characters are thinking or feeling.

The film ends with Aurea and daughter Maria (both old and both now played by Montenegro) talking about the fact that man has landed on the moon. Aurea is amazed and asks what he found there. Maria answers, "Nothing. Just sand.? Aurea smiles. There's something very fitting about this ending. Neil Armstrong lands on the moon and finds a sand not unlike the sand that fills Aurea's world. Man's exploration has taken him to the moon where he has found both nothing (no life forms, no ancient civilizations) and something (a sense of accomplishment at pushing the boundaries of his known world). This is true for the three generations of women in House of Sand . The ending also calls to mind T.S. Elliot's quote, "We must not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time."

House of Sand (in Portuguese with English subtitles and rated R for sexual content) boasts the hypnotic power of its landscape and a pair of powerful and passionate performances by Montenegro and Torres.

Companion viewing: Woman of the Dunes, The Proposition, The Valley Obscured by Clouds (which includes the T.S. Elliot quote)

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