In Portuguese with English subtitles, House of Sand ("Casa De Areia") brings the barren side of Brazil's northeastern Maranhao desert into majestic view.
Besides having first-rate actresses like Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres (real-life mother and daughter) at his disposal, director Andrucha Waddington (Me, You, Them) works assuredly and measuredly from a non-realist structure of writing partner Elena Soarez.
Something mesmerizing that is buoyed by time passages and spare conversation comes across in the dunes, the film's antecedent being a photo of a buried abandoned home.
Through nearly 60 years, Waddington presents the travails of Dona Maria (Montenegro) and daughter Aurea (Torres). The stunning opening panning and static shots show their arrival in a sweltering caravan led by Aurea's increasingly mad husband Vasco (Ruy Guerra). It's 1910 and the harsh environment will suddenly leave mother and daughter alone.
A runaway slave, Massu, effectively played by Seu Jorge (The Life Aquatic), will be an important companion during the loneliness Dona Maria and a pregnant Aurea experience. Mother has a jaded resignation, while Aurea yearns to escape the inhospitable desert.
House of Sand is resolved in its imagery, whether in scenes of streaming sand, on the beach, or war planes soaring over the arid environment. Waddington portrays the century through science, war, and, finally, the arrival of man on the moon in a sweeping, metaphysical way.
The graceful, disparate emotional dynamic between mother and daughter is connected to the vast wasteland in a color scheme that revolves almost like a motif which has Montenegro and Torres exchanging their parts. And, affectingly, the marvelous Montenegro inhabits the roles of Aurea and Aurea's daughter Maria when both will finally gaze at a star-filled sky.
The inaccessibility of such a remote area is overcome through Aurea's meeting with a group of astronomers using a solar eclipse to demonstrate Albert Einstein's relativity theory. House of Sand is a "three-phase" film with little urgency that may loosen the dramatic grip, or unfold as too abstract for less discerning on-lookers.
If the story fails to engage, then Maranhao is a painterly vista of joy and fear. The entrancing naturalistic compositions, which include an intense sexual encounter of the ebony Massu and the ivory Aurea, are unified with the discomforting thoughts and feelings of Dona Maria and Aurea. And real music, which Aurea points out is hard to explain, pulsates in minimalist fashion, featuring an atypical, climactic new recording from a Chopin opus.