The House of Sand (Casa de Areia, Brazil 2005) by Andrucha Waddington
Reviewed by Volker Poelzl
Living Abroad Contributing Editor
“House of Sand (Widescreen) ” is director Andrucha Waddington’s first feature film since his widely acclaimed “Me You Them” (2000). Going against the current realist trend in Brazilian cinema (such as “City of God” and “City of Men”) “The House of Sand” is a visually stunning and metaphoric tale in which humans are dwarfed by the forces of nature and overpowered by a fate they did not choose. The story spans about sixty years, from 1910 until 1969, and follows two generations of mothers and daughters stranded in a desolate region of sand dunes in Brazil’s northern Maranhão state.
Áurea (played by Fernanda Torres), who is pregnant, follows her husband Vasco to his new property in the midst of a vast sea of sand dunes, where he intends to raise goats. The couple is accompanied by Áurea’s mother (Fernanda Montenegro, the real-life mother of Fernanda Torres) and several workers. The film opens with a long aerial shot of the sand dunes, a surreal and desolate landscape devoid of any human presence. The next scene shows the crest of a sand dune dotted with the tiny silhouettes of Vasco’s traveling donkey caravan.
After reaching Vasco’s property, Áurea reveals to him that she is pregnant and implores him to leave this desolate place: “This is no place for a child. This is no place for anyone,” she tells him. But despite Áurea’s pleas and protests Vasco is set on starting a new life amid the sand dunes and builds a hut. After Vasco unexpectedly dies in an accident, Áurea makes plans to leave the sand dunes with her mother, but all attempts to escape their isolation and return to civilization fail in the end. There are no roads and no ocean-going boats, and the only connection to the outside world is Chico, an aging traveling salesman who occasionally delivers salt to a nearby fishing village. When Chico dies, Áurea comes to terms with the inevitability of her fate and decides to stay on and raise her daughter Maria in this deserted region, where the only residents are descendents of fugitive slaves, who live off fishing along the nearby coast. None of the villagers has ever seen the outside world, and nobody knows how to go about leaving the small, isolated coastal community.
In a place where the shifting sands quickly erase all traces of human presence, time passes imperceptibly, and before Áurea knows it, nine years have passed. The simple hut built at the edge of a huge sand dune, has slowly been surrounded by the advancing sand. One night, a sand storm covers the hut and claims the life of Áurea’s mother. Áurea is left only with her nine year-old daughter Maria, but she also begins to form a friendship with Massu (Luiz Melodia), a man from the nearby fishing village. Finding solace in her relationship with Massu, Áurea resigns herself to spending the rest of her life amid the sand dunes. But she doesn’t give up hope that one day her daughter Maria will be able to leave.
Shot in subdued color and with long wide-angle takes, the film is visually stunning and incorporates the sweeping landscape of sand dunes and the ever-present wind as major elements of the story. The footprints humans leave in the sand are quickly swept away by the wind, and any attempt to tame this forbidding wilderness is soon destroyed by the shifting dunes. The soundtrack is also noteworthy. The music throughout the entire movie has no real melody of its own. It simply echoes the relentless howls, whispers, and moans of the wind, which further enhances the desolation and isolation of the main characters. The only time we hear real music in the movie is when Áurea has contact with humans from the outside world, which happens only a few times in all the decades she lives in the dunes.
“The House of Sand” had a successful run at several international film festivals and won several prizes, including a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
For more information, check out the movie’s official website: www.sonyclassics.com/houseofsand/.